The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

Seal, 2000, 659 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2882-7

The most overwhelming impression I got from Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is how subtle it all was. Compared to this book, other novels are written with all the skill of a two-year-old kid messing around with markers. Atwood introduces, develops and disposes of her characters in such a delicate way that you only feel the cut of the knife long after it’s been pulled.

A substantial part of this success must be attributed to the intricate structure of the novel, which takes place on roughly four continuums at the same time.

The most immediate of those four threads is a first-person narration of Iris Chase’s life at 83. She putters around the small city of Ticonderoga, Ontario while reflecting on the nature of passing time and the fates of people she knew. Not quite a crotchety old lady, Iris still has an eye for things, and an ironclad memory of the early years of her life.

These early years form the bulk of the novel, as Iris relates the events leading up to her sister’s death, when “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” [P.1] That’s literally how the novel begins, and also figuratively how it ends, being the climax of Iris Chase’s life despite the fifty-odd years that would follow.

Interleaved along this parallel narrative is a third thread, made up of newspaper articles directly or tangentially related to the Chases’s life. Gossip columns, eulogies, newspaper reports provide a dry view of what happened to them, offering an “official” view of events that is often simply fantastical.

And, finally, as a fourth thread we get excerpts of “The Blind Assassin”, a cult-novel-within-a-novel written by Laura Chase. It’s about a woman who falls in love with a pulp science-fiction writer, but is it what it’s really about? In between the gaudy alien creatures, fantastical planets and simplistic plotting of the stories imagined by the writer, you can guess a deeper meaning.

You might find The Blind Assassin shelved in the “general fiction” area of your bookstore or in the “mystery” section, and both would be correct locations. Even only a few pages in the novel, troubling questions appear. Besides simply seeing how everything comes together, we get troubling hints of suicide, murder and utter downfall. Why is it that Iris Chase, daughter to an industrial magnate, would end her life as a near-pauper? Is it as awful as it appears?

Certainly, there’s something in this novel for everyone. Family portraits are always compelling, especially when they’re tragic. I was compelled by the inevitable descent of Iris Chase, even as it’s really liberation in disguise. And, of course, I couldn’t help but like the sympathetic portrait of pulp SF writers, with their imaginations being used for courtship and sustenance alike. There are beautiful phrases and memorable epigrams, as would be expected from an accomplished writer like Atwood.

It all comes together in the end, of course. In such a beautiful way that you close the book and whisper a stunned wow of astonishment at how well the structure converges to a single unification point, at how deeply you’ve come to care for these flawed characters, at how even characterization mistakes are intentional. Don’t be surprised if you like The Blind Assassin better after you’ve read it that during an initial approach. It’s an admirable book as much as it’s a compelling one.

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