Review: The Blind Assassin

I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing. She has a really elegant style, evocative and emotional without being flowery. Atwood doesn’t sugar-coat the way she sees the world, even as she fictionalizes it in her novels. She tends to refuse the neatly-packaged happy endings that many readers have come to expect. Her books are believable, though sometimes it nearly makes you sick to your stomach to believe in them. The Blind Assassin is one of those novels that leads you, so gradually, to the unavoidable truth that you can’t refuse it; you want to push away and deny the conclusions you are left with, even as your more practical brain reminds you that you’re just a reader, the book is just fiction.

But “just fiction” has great power in Atwood’s hands, as she has shown over the decades. The Blind Assassin is narrated by Iris, an octogenarian that is seeking to set down the truest version of her (and her family’s) life that she is capable of writing. Be warned: this is a serious tome, 521 pages of family dirt, from the boring to the scandalous. Her personal history is interspersed with newspaper clippings from major events throughout her life, spanning from before the Great Depression up through current times. Autobiographical chapters are alternated with chapters from a novel called The Blind Assassin, which newspaper clippings tell us was written by Laura Chase, Iris’s younger sister. The novel begins, however, with Iris receiving word of Laura’s suicide, though her husband’s power and money ensure that the papers report it as an accident.

Iris tells her story in small bursts, mostly linearly, though she often refers to things that will happen in the future of her narrative without explaining them. Eventually, when she does come to that incident, the event explains many of the odd little moments that readers likely noticed in her story that Iris had glossed over. It is not a happy life, overall. Iris and Laura grew up in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, isolated by their family’s money and importance in the town. Their mother passes away when the girls are young, so much of their upbringing is left to their housekeeper, Reenie, and a succession of ineffectual tutors. Their father is a war veteran and an alcoholic. It is no secret that he wanted sons, and was disappointed that he ended up with two daughters instead. Iris is matter-of-fact about these aspects of her childhood. She neither asks for nor expects pity; the reaction of whoever finds and reads her account of her life is not the issue she is concerned with. Iris only wants someone, even if it’s only one person, to know the truth of her life and the choices she made along the way.

Atwood does an impeccable job of weaving major world events into the novel. The Depression, along with World Wars One and Two, do not simply occur in the background of Iris’s story. We see the very real impact of these eras on the Chase family, Iris, and Laura, as well as all those around them. It’s not the world history, however, that captivated me while reading this novel. It’s Iris. She is the heart of this novel, flawed and unhappy in many ways but still beating on. It’s fascinating to watch the strands of this novel come together, to see the differences in how Iris remembers an event versus the way the newspapers at the time reported on it. On top of this, the reader inevitably begins looking for parallels between The Blind Assassin and the life history Iris describes. The two major revelations of the book are not entirely unexpected: I suspected both plot points well before Iris confirmed them. Atwood drops many hints, though many more clues can also be seen in retrospect. The twists (though they aren’t twists, really — they’re just the hidden driving force behind the novel) are linked, though Iris is responsible for one and Laura for the other. Laura’s secret is the one  that basically did me in. I correctly guessed it about a hundred pages before Iris confirmed it, but that did not lesson the emotional blow.

Atwood paints her characters beautifully, to the point that the awful things that come to pass don’t seem out of keeping with what we as readers know about them. Iris and Laura are both tragic figures in their own way, and the respective villains they battle are horrific without being caricatures. Iris and Laura’s sister-in-law Winifred in particular is dreadfully familiar: the vast majority of women know a woman like her, a petty tyrant that hides her cruelty behind designer clothes and superficial friendships. Iris and Laura themselves are also familiar, and anyone with siblings can empathize with their complicated relationship. It’s not hard to imagine knowing them or someone like them. Many people can also relate to the ever-present notion in the novel of “family business,” of secrets kept and lies told in the name of keeping up appearances.

As I mentioned, Atwood does not give readers fairy-tale endings, nor anything resembling closure. I am used to this from her other novels (including three of my favorites: The Handmaids’ Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood). The open-ended nature of this novel didn’t bother me. What has me unhappy, however, is the bleakness of The Blind Assassin. There is the sense that the sacrifices made and the battles fought were all for nothing. That there might have been small victories, but they will be rendered useless by later actions. Iris herself feels this to a certain extent, though she does not dwell on it. Instead, she prefers to hope that her own story will set right some of the awful wrongs that have been committed over time. As a reader, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling of melancholy that settled over me after finishing this novel. I am still as big an Atwood fan as ever, but I don’t know that I will come back to this book in the future. It was well written and an excellent read, but the futility of the ending is hard to deal with. I think it would be for any reader that got emotionally engaged with this novel.

If you’re an Atwood aficionado, you’ll probably like this book for her style and storytelling. If you’re coming to Atwood for the first time, I might suggest one of her other works, perhaps of the speculative fiction variety. At least with those, you can console yourself with the knowledge that — while not impossible — those events have not yet come to pass. The Blind Assassin‘s storyline is all to easy to conceive as having happened before, with the potential to happen again.

It’s hard to sign off with my usual cheery salutation after finishing so weighty a novel, but nonetheless: happy reading!

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