The Blind Assassin
Published by McClelland & Stewart
521 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Margaret Atwood's 38th book is not one story, but four: the tales nested perfectly in Russian doll style, one dovetailing into the next and providing a launching point for those still to come. It's initially dizzying, then dazzling and -- finally -- very compelling to watch Atwood weave her brilliant tapestry.
The primary narrator in The Blind Assassin is Iris Chase Griffen, 83 when we first encounter her, though younger in flashbacks as she tells her story. Ostensibly, she's creating something of a journal that she hopes will be read -- probably after she's gone -- by her granddaughter, Sabrina. Iris hasn't seen Sabrina -- now a young woman -- since the girl was a child. We know there was a rift and that it wasn't of Iris' creation -- or, at least, not directly -- but the reasons why are left a mystery. And it's better that way. Sweeter. After a while the mysteries grow so thick, they're practically viral and it's impossible to put the book down. How could it be otherwise? Atwood has determined to give us -- for a time, at least -- unanswered questions. And she plays us. She knows how. You read to find the answers. Thankfully, they're mostly there.
The story is told partly in newspaper clippings. The clippings themselves lead to our mystery: slender threads of knowledge and the words withheld are as loud as those included. We can hear them:
The Toronto Star, May 26, 1945
Iris' words around this accident open the book.
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
It is to the late Laura that authorship of the novel The Blind Assassin is attributed, with a posthumous publication date of 1947. The novel within a novel gives its title to the whole of the book, a device Atwood also employed in Lady Oracle (1976). The story -- also told in the first person -- details a lengthy and clandestine affair between a socialist on the lam and his socialite lover. Within this story of Laura's, the man tells his lover a story of his own: this one is a pulp fantasy set on the planet Zycron, "located in another dimension of space."
The fictional lover tells his story in installments, during trysts. "Have you cooked up any more?" She asks him in one of his rented rooms. "Any more of what?" he replies. "Any more of my story." And so he tells her of slit throats and murder and betrayal and a blind assassin in the doomed city of Sakiel-Norn. It's a tale more fiction than science and after a time it emerges as a surreal metaphor for the lives of the lovers and -- oddly -- for the lives of those outside of Laura's fiction.
Since the Chase sisters are born around the time of World War I and the story climaxes days after the end of World War II, a lot of the color in The Blind Assassin is set in the tumultuous period between the Wars. Atwood nails these details beautifully. The optimism in the 1920s, the fear and hunger of the depression, the enthusiasm and political unrest into the late 1940s. Atwood brings us physical details as well -- meals, clothing styles and the general modes of life -- and these details are transporting.
Iris Chase emerges from the story as one of Atwood's most memorable characters to date. There is the reminder of Margaret Laurence's primary character in The Stone Angel, Hagar Shipley, in Atwood's Iris; perhaps homage or perhaps coincidence. Like Hagar, Iris is a woman near the end of her life, reflecting on the path she's taken to old age. Like Hagar, as well, Iris is in some ways oblivious to her own hand in the downward turn. A victim to whom fate has not been kind, but whose ills -- like those of many victims of circumstance -- are largely of her own making, even if her contribution was often one of complacency. Iris is more likable than Hagar, however, and owns more understanding of the role she's played in her fate. There are glimmers of it: the things she might have done, the things she perhaps should have done. But there is also slick satisfaction with some of the things that fate arranged that felt like payback.
Though The Blind Assassin's plot sounds horribly complicated -- or at the very least convoluted -- Atwood pulls it off without visible effort. In fact, this is Atwood at the zenith of her story weaving powers: it must be. How can it get better than this? The Blind Assassin is seasoned Atwood: mature Atwood. A book that, at various times, gives us a little bit of each of the styles she's experimented with through the years. There is the distant, terse Atwood in the Laura Chase novel, there are snippets of poetry at various places in the book. Then there are the tight historical detail and classic storytelling in the Iris Chase journals and the gorgeous flights of fancy and fantasy when we visit Sakiel-Norn. The resulting mosaic is breathtaking from the standpoints of both craftsmanship and storytelling. | October 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.