The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood
This is the last book I checked out from my high school library. It’s sad, in a way. (I really need to get started on gifts for the librarians.) I’m so relieved it was such a wonderful book–I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to end it on The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. It also hadn’t been rented since 2004–the first time it had been checked on. Shame on you, student body!
Margaret Atwood is on my big list of books to read, but this isn’t. (On the list: rereading The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.) But, in a pinch, I’ll cast around for an author’s other works. I do not leave libraries empty-handed.
The Blind Assassin is a grand tale of a dying Canadian dynasty during the twentieth century. It’s also a meditation on the indignities of aging. There’s a good science fiction yarn in there, too. While that may sound convoluted (and the pretentious copy on the back of the book certainly doesn’t help), don’t let it scare you off–this is a novel well worth your time.
The dynastic clash and the indignities of aging are told to us by Iris Chase, daughter of a button manufacturer and reluctant wife of an industrialist, now an elderly woman with a heart condition. Robbed of her daughter and granddaughter by her devious sister-in-law, the elderly Iris decides commits her life’s story to paper. This is interwoven with her dead sister’s novel, The Blind Assassin, about a pair of unnamed lovers who meet in a series of increasingly filthy dives. The man dreams up a handful of science fiction stories to entertain his lover. These three genres are deceptive–they all boil down to one eventually, and how! The science fiction story is an allegory, the novel is autobiographical. It’s all about the sisters Chase.
Iris is sharp, bitter, and intriguing. She relates the hazards of living while your body is giving up the ghost in a detached and offended voice. Her memoirs, such as they are, mostly center around her deceased sister, Laura, a flighty, reckless, and extremely left-wing girl–a dangerous thing to be in the time of the Russian Revolution. Life happens to them, not the other way around, a fact much resented by Laura. Iris reluctantly marries Richard Griffen, the industrialist, to save the family button company.
That fails, as does the girls’ father in a handful of heartbreaking scenes. We are then introduced to a high society villainess, if there can be one in this novel–Winifred, Iris’ new sister-in-law. I find her fascinating and repulsive. Graceful and insincere, Winifred is the woman behind her brother’s political career. When Iris stands to usurp her position of the most important woman in Winifred’s life, Winifred begins a familial smear campaign that is horrifying in scope. A scene where Iris’ daughter, Aimee, hurls startling accusations at her mother shows the extent of the damage.
This novel is so intricately plotted that I hesitate to give anything away. It blows my mind, honestly–while this novel is plenty realistic (Laura’s indignant reaction to the idea that she might one day menstruate is almost endearing), the plot is woven very neatly and tightly, a fact you don’t realize until the end of the novel.
The way the Chase sisters’ lives are slowly revealed, each facet emerging slowly, is just wonderful–I gasped aloud when I realized exactly why their newest tutor was without a teaching gig. Such nonchalant reveals are this novel’s speciality, including the twist at the end that completely alters everything you’ve just read.
Atwood writes with such a poetic yet practical tone here. I read A Handmaid’s Tale a few years back, but I don’t remember enough to compare. Laura’s own novel is more poetic (despite its language), and, thus, more capable of beauty–but Iris’ memoirs have lines that just hit you in the gut with the truth of them.
The only problem I can think of is Laura, who is perhaps meant to be more endearing than she truly is. However, all the characters in this novel are complex (save, possibly, the Griffens), so this can hardly be counted as a flaw. And, while I love stories where family dynasties clash, the Chases are really no match for the Griffens. But overall, they’re very small flaws in a very good novel.
Bottom line: The Blind Assassin is well-written, well-crafted, and satisfying–don’t let the supposed three genres and pretentious back copy fool you! It’s got its moments of beauty, and its moments of truth–while the moments of truth sometimes hit you too deeply, they certainly make you think.
I rented this book from my school library.