Review: The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

 Reading Margaret Atwood is something I don’t often do, basically because she is after all a Classic Feminist Author and lest we forget, I am a very bad feminist and more accurately because I don’t like reading books that I Really Ought To Read.  I shouldn’t say all that though because that is after all what gets feminism into trouble: when women start to feel that it doesn’t fit for them and anyway, Margaret Atwood denies that her books are explicitly feminist but there is a lot of food for thought here and Atwood is not a famous and celebrated author for no reason at all.  The only other thing of hers that I have ever read was The Handmaid’s Tale which I read when I was fifteen and having a Grumpy Summer – it was the year after my mother remarried and I slouched about and was difficult to live with just to make it clear that I Really Wasn’t Impressed and part of it was reading Depressing Books.  The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a woman trapped in a dystopian society where she is forced to copulate with a married couple in an ultimately futile attempt to provide them with offspring.  It went a bit over my head at the time.  If I ever get all my books down from my parents’ attic I will probably have another read at it.

The Blind Assassin is similarly unusual, it does have a science fiction element but is much more grounded in the real world.  Lest we forget, this one was also a Booker Prize winner and deservedly so.  Actually, I have to admit that after reading this, I realised why Atonement didn’t win the same award the following year – both books are fantastic but there is a certain amount of synergy in what they were trying to pull off.  But I’ll get to that.  The Blind Assassin is narrated by Iris who is reminiscing about her life fifty years after it happened – basically she is a lonely old woman in the late 1990s recalling her heyday.  There are four strands of narration to this story – this is where it gets complicated.  There is Iris, the old woman, then she switches from narrating her present to her past, so there is the second strand, Iris the child/young woman.  Interwoven with both these are the extracts from “The Blind Assassin”, a novel supposedly written by Iris’ sister Laura about a young man on the run from the police telling his lover a science fiction story, and lastly the newspaper reports about the main characters (who are all socialites/figures of prominence) which ironically enough portray the least factually accurate account of what has gone on.

The book opens with the words ‘Ten days after the end of World War Two, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge’.  Although the story is being told fifty years later, this is definitely the Grand Finale, with the rest of the book devoted to explaining why it happened.  Iris was the older sister, she grew up with a father who was the wealthy owner of a slowly declining button factory and Iris married a leading industrialist Richard Griffin at eighteen and had a daughter Aimee.  Along the way, Iris and Laura met Alex, a communist science fiction writer at a picnic given for their father’s employees.  A photograph is taken of the three of them together.  Later, Alex comes under suspicion when their father’s button factory is burned to the ground and the girls hide him, once he has moved on, Laura manages to get prints of their photograph to remember him by, giving one to Iris with Laura cut out of it and cutting Iris out of her own copy. 

This book is a lot about perspective and point of view, this is where I think the parallels to Atonement come in – the reader is being guided by Iris just as in Atonement they are guided by Briony.  Iris herself comments at one point that she is not sure whether her account of events is the truth but that since she is the only survivor, her version has become the truth now.  Indeed, the inclusion of the newspaper reports mark the gap between what is recorded and what has really happened.  However, it is Laura’s novel “The Blind Assassin” which makes this most clear.  Supposedly, Iris found the novel written in her sister’s notebooks shortly after her death and had it published; detailing the love affair which many believed to be autobiographical, it caused a terrific scandal and ruined Iris’ husband’s political career. 

But why does Atwood include this novel within a novel?  Many novelists would have us believe that their characters are storytellers themselves but it is rare to have them quoted at such length.  The purpose of “The Blind Assassin” becomes clear as the novel progresses, many of the characters misconstrue the meaning of Laura’s novel; Richard dies mysteriously shortly after it was published, Aimee chooses to interpret it as a sign that Laura rather than Iris was her mother – yet by the end of the novel, Iris gently admits to the reader that ‘you must have known for some time‘ what the book’s true meaning was.  And it’s no spoiler to say to first time readers that yes, I knew and I thought it was blinking obvious but more in a I-couldn’t-believe-the-other-characters-hadn’t-spotted-it sense rather than as a criticism of Atwood’s writing. 

Within “The Blind Assassin” (the novel in the novel) is the other story, the one the young man is telling his lover, about the city Sakiel-Norn which was destroyed and the barbaric sacrifices they made of young virgin women who had their tongues cut out before being dressed in white and led to the altar to be slaughtered, but then one night, one of these unfortunate girls is rescued by a blind assassin.  This story clearly relates back to Iris’ narrative of 1930s unhappily married life to Richard but by the end of the book I wasn’t sure if Iris was the sacrificed tongueless girl or the blind assassin.  Iris’ journals make clear that she was not as passive as she appeared during her married life but it is obvious that Laura’s death specifically prompted her to wake up and take responsibility for her own life, meaning that perhaps it was Laura who had far greater vision. 

Criticisms?  Well … Laura herself is rather enigmatic and although I see that that is perfectly natural under the circumstances but it meant that personally I didn’t warm to her – I was on Iris’ side.  Those two girls were lost in the woods with nobody to guide them and there was not one more to blame than the other.  I felt that Atwood definitely pulled off the whole idea of Laura Chase The Author far better than Setterfield in The Thirteenth Tale (remember that one? reviewed it a few months back …) but still it was difficult to imagine that “The Blind Assassin” was going to be as much of a cult read as Iris said it was.  Still, you never can tell. 

Reading back over this review, you would think that a justifiable criticism would be how complicated the plot is, but that really was not the case, which perhaps makes a point of its own about Atwood as a writer, she pulled this one off effortlessly and it was a fascinating read.  Definitely earned the Booker – I finished this thinking that I should read more Margaret Atwood. 

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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Published by Hachette UK on September 3rd 2009
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 656
ISBN: 9780748113347

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