Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin
January 12, 2012, 11:50 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , ,

As Robert at 101 Books wrote in his review of The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood’s writing style here is what makes the novel. The novel gives us three stories (that of Iris Chase, an 83-year-old woman living under the weight of her family history; that of Iris’s family and the Griffen family she married into; and a novella titled The Blind Assassin), and Atwood’s tremendous narrative skill keeps all the story lines rotating in tight relation with one another, each character’s voice clear and unforgettable.

The novel opens with the death of Iris’s sister, Laura: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (2). It’s what led to Laura’s death that Iris explores in the course of her novel. She reaches far back into family history, back to her grandparents, up to the present-day at the time of Laura’s death, when she was married to Richard Griffen, “the prominent manufacturer”, up to her true present-day, living alone, the last surviving member of her family, in Port Ticonderoga. Iris is a woman who has watched all those around her vanish or die: her father, her sister, her daughter, and her granddaughter, and Atwood creates for her the voice of a sometimes bitter woman riffling through her family’s history as she attempts to explain The Blind Assassin, the posthumously published novella by Laura Chase.

It’s this Blind Assassin within The Blind Assassin that provides us with some clue as to where Iris is taking us with the story of her family history. The Laura Chase novel takes place largely in a series of borrowed bedrooms and apartments around Toronto, with a woman and her lover meeting and him, during these meetings, telling a story of a sci-fi bent. It’s from this story that The Blind Assassin takes its name, there being an actual blind assassin here – one forced by his past and his city’s culture into being what he is. Early on the lover says of the town (which may have been destroyed, or may have been shrunk to a fraction of its former size) and its inhabitants that

The King knows what’s happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don’t know. They don’t know they’ve become so small. They don’t know they’re supposed to be dead. They don’t even know they’ve been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it’s the sun. (12)

There are moments throughout the novel-within-the-novel – more and more as we progress in the book – that seem to comment on Iris’s life and the lives she’s narrating. There’s a sense, throughout, that Iris has some knowledge that no one around her does, that she alone knows why Laura drove her car off a bridge in 1945. And though Iris’s present-day life consists mainly of taking short walks around town, stopping to pick at a donut and drink a coffee, there’s some beauty to Atwood’s writing of her aging and of Iris’s younger self. While Iris never states this explicitly, she writes of Laura as someone who is in some essential way a braver and better person than she is; it is only through writing that Iris gains her voice and the ability to say those things she never said in life. The posthumous publication of The Blind Assassin is key in allowing Iris’s escape from her husband, Richard Griffen (a man she married at 18, when he was 35; a business competitor of her father’s who, rather than trying to keep her father’s business running through a partnership, destroyed the competition and thus led to the death of Iris’s father), though his sister Winifred will manage to get her claws into both Iris’s daughter and granddaughter.

The Blind Assassin is the story of a family’s decline, but through the interior novel we gain some sense of the moments of beauty that came during that fall. Because, the longer you read, flipping from 83-year-old Iris to her younger self to a few chapters from The Blind Assassin to a clipping from the newspaper, the more it becomes clear that The Blind Assassin was not written in a vacuum but was, rather, directly influenced by the events of the family’s life. Iris’s “big reveals” at novel’s end, not just of what led to Laura’s death but of the history of the interior novel, are ones that the reader can see coming, but that remain remarkably satisfying.

This is a book to read and reread, a book that deserves to be loaned out to all who will take it. It’s an extraordinary family history, flush with lasting images and stories (in particular those from the Laura Chase Blind Assassin) that suggest the power of memory and family, and of the power of the written word to provide a way through histories and of regaining lost control over a life.


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It is one of my favourite novels, because it was the first Atwood work that I read and that made me fall in love with her.

Just curious: have you read Kate Morton’s “The House at Riverton”? My 20th c. English professor and I reached the conclusion that it is a plagiarism. So so obvious!

Comment by Elena

This is a lovely, insightful review. I absolutely loved this book, found Iris to be a very compelling character and the story overall very enchanting.

Comment by Jennifer

When I first read this book, I was amazed and in love with it. Reading your review, I can see it’s been long enough that I need to re-read it as I cannot remember anything about it except a trunk (?) – and I don’t even know why I remember that part. :)

Comment by jenn aka the picky girl

This is such a wonderful and clever book … read it many many years ago now but I still remember the buzz I had reading it, and my bookgroup’s discussion re when each of us “got” what was going on. Atwood at her best … along with Alias Grace and The handmaid’s tale … but this is my pick to date of hers.

Comment by whisperinggums

I love that “buzz” of reading – and the moment when you realize that a book is going to be extraordinary. I’ve loved both this and The Handmaid’s Tale, so I’m looking forward to starting on Alias Grace. (Well, and the rest of her backlist.)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

What a lovely review. Also a fantastic reminder that I need to read this book again. 2012 might prove to be the year that is 1/4 rereads. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

Comment by zeteticat

I’d love to read your thoughts on a reread. This is one of those books I finished KNOWING I had to return – it seems like it’ll grow a lot on a reread. There’s so much in it that I’m sure I missed on the first reading, maybe in part because I fell so in love with the story that I was reading a couple hundred pages a day.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I liked Atwood’s writing in The Blind Assassin (first book I’ve read by her) and you reminded me of the sections about Iris when she is old. I had forgotten about them though I thought they were quite atmospheric at the time. I didn’t like Laura much, especially because sometimes it seemed like she was being portrayed as a ‘better’ person.

Comment by Christy

It’s been a while since I read this, but everything Atwood writes is amazing. She’s one of my heroes. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

Comment by curlygeek04

It’s funny…I bought a gorgeous hardcover edition of this book (the one you have pictured, I’m reasonably sure), and when buying it, I thought, ‘I am going to be utterly given over to this book when I begin it, in a way that won’t condone me even picking up another title until I’ve finished it.’

I’m almost certain 2012 won’t end without me having read it, and having been spellbound by it. I’m particularly interested to see how the multiplicity of layering is handled. I confess the idea of the interior novel is what’s moving me the most.

Also on my to-read list from Atwood (among many others) is her 2011 publication of nonfic. essays, ‘In Other Worlds – SF and the Human Imagination’. Have you heard of it?

Comment by Shivanee @ Novel Niche

I remember hearing of that book now – had forgotten all about it. Since I’ve loved the two Atwood novels I’ve read, I’m sure I’ll love this – I’m really curious to read Atwood’s thoughts on genre fiction. She does such a fantastic job of weaving elements of sci-fi into her work. With the interior novel in The Blind Assassin, it threw me off initially (just in the first section I read, when I was still trying to figure out what was going on), but it added so much to the story. In part, I think, because within that interior novel there was this fantastic sci-fi-ish sort of story. So many authors get lazy when they’re dealing with interior stories or novels that exist only within the world of their novels (you know, sort of mentioning the book or themes but never actually showing us parts of the stories, because they’d inevitably have the same voice as the exterior story housing them). I love that Atwood was so careful with the interior Blind Assassin.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’m so glad you enjoyed this so much. I got it years ago but have hesitated to pick it up for some reason. Sounds like I should give it a try!

Comment by rebeccareid

[…] I’d have to wait six more months for (Zone One, The Marriage Plot, and also an old book – The Blind Assassin); I went to New York and nearly cried because the city was too big, and also got on subways going […]

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