Author: Margaret Atwood
Publishing Date: 2000
Number of Pages: 521
Genre: Historical Fiction
‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ Thus begins The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood’s stunning new novel. Laura Chase’s older sister Iris, married at eighteen to a politically prominent industrialist but now poor and eighty-two, is living in Fort Ticonderoga, a town dominated by their once-prosperous family before the First World War. While coping with her unreliable body, Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her sister’s tragic death. Chief among these was the publication of The Blind Assassin, a novel which earned the dead Laura Chase not only notoriety but also a devoted cult following: as Iris says, she herself lives ‘in the long shadow cast by Laura.’
Sexually explicit for its time, The Blind Assassin describes a risky affair in the turbulent thirties between a wealthy young woman and a man on the run. During their secret meetings in rented rooms, the lovers concoct a pulp fantasy set on Planet Zycron. As the invented story twists through love and sacrifice and betrayal, so does the real one; while events in both move closer to war and catastrophe. By turns lyrical, outrageous, formidable, compelling and funny, this is a novel filled with deep humour and dark drama.
It is very rare that I am beholden to a singular book the way I am with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. This is my third trip into the wonderful world of her works but never have I been this riveted although I sing praises for her heavily feminist work, The Handmaid’s Tale. It is no surprise because both epic masterpieces were intricately weaved by the same skillful and masterful literary tailor. But there was something about The Blind Assassin that just truly captivates me, something that resonated within me.
When I picked up The Blind Assassin to conclude my September Man Booker Prize, I barely had any iota on how taken I would be. And to be honest, I didn’t have any inkling on what the story was about until I was turning page after page in a desire to understand and appreciate this labyrinthine tale. The only motivation I had then is that the book was part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was just an added incentive that it won the 2000 Man Booker Prize Award. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts.
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
Iris and Laura Chase are two sisters who have grown up in Port Ticonderoga. Their grandfather pioneered the industry in their town, stirring it towards progress. But unfortunate things happened and the family business slowly diminished. To curb losses, Iris married industrialist Richard Griffen, and practically, his domineering sister, Winifred. They moved to the bigger city, away from the tranquil citadel that was their hometown. But in the big city, a bigger trouble was brewing which pushed Laura to the edge, and ultimately, drove her towards her untimely death.
Ruled out as suicide, there was more to Laura’s story than meets the eye. Shortly after her death, her novel entitled The Blind Assassin was published but was initially frowned upon due to its strongly sexual context which depicted the unlikely and clandestine romance between an assassin on the run and a wealthy young woman. In the labyrinth that is the novel is an obscured message and story that parallels that of the main novel. Spanning over sixty-years, the octogenarian Iris travels back in time to retell Laura’s story and how it changed her life.
What Margaret Atwood laid are the groundworks for a majestic story whose message resonates beyond the time we are in. No superlative is enough to bring justice to the perplexing tale and series of subplots that she carefully weaved. With women as the primary protagonists, just like the case of The Handmaid’s Tale and Bodily Harm, Atwood is never daunted to tell the story of women, of ordinary women. Although she keeps on insisting against it, her works reek of feminism as she wilfully and explicitly champions the causes of women.
On the surface, the novel highlighted the powerlessness of women vis-à-vis their personal destinies. Their voices are always drowned in the cacophony of male voices and even though most lack substance, it is always theirs that is heeded. When Iris and Laura were growing up, they were locked in a virtual prison they call home and raised to be subservient to the men in their lives, something that was ubiquitous during its time. Moreover, the novel also took a deeper dive into abuses committed against women, into what happens when safety in one’s home is just a mere illusion because the real monsters breed within its safety.
“Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
The hushed voices of the women echoed resoundingly through the deep oblivion. One can easily say that Iris and Laura were born at the wrong time when everybody expects women to simply be satisfied with what is given them. Although the feminist movement made headways over the years, it still has got a long way to go before fully realizing its goals, making novels like The Blind Assassin more relevant. It strikes close to home. Even though the novel was published in 2000, its profound but relevant message still resonates until nearly two decades later.
The Blind Assassin is a series of intricate tales weaved together to create an abstract yet wonderful tapestry. Interwoven into Iris’s story are excerpts from Laura’s version of The Blind Assassin. The stories are related in an alternating manner and both in the first-person perspective, giving readers an intimate peek into the personalities of the narrators. The disadvantage, again, is that everything is based on the primary narrator’s understanding and there is no middle ground because everything else is elucidated.
What has got me into the narrative is the unsuspecting mind that as the narrative draws to a close, my mind was literally blown. The plot twist that revealed itself in the end was simply beyond my imagination and I must credit all of it to Atwood’s storytelling prowess. It caught me by surprise but when I looked back, I found hints here and there but kept a nonchalant approach. Besides, the way the story was related kept me from walking that downtrodden path of suspicions and understanding. It is in this obscurity that I got devoted with this masterpiece by a skillful storyteller.
The only problem I had with the novel is that it dragged. The story is something that one must breathe in to fully appreciate it but the story moved on an unbearably slow pace. Thankfully, the complexion of the story was altered by the incorporation of news articles and magazine pieces, making the story a more realistic flare. All of these elements, other than the pace, were all carefully stitched together by Atwood’s skillful hands. Her writing was simply exemplary.
“Women have curious ways of hurting someone else. They hurt themselves instead; or else they do it so the guy doesn’t even know he’s been hurt until much later. Then he finds out. Then his dick falls off.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
I can’t help but rave about this contemporary classic that deals with women taking the backseat. Through several layers of artistic and literary elements, the obscured narrative is filled with wonder, putting me at the edge of my seat. Again, that surprising ending was what made it all the more memorable for me because I found it very rare for novels to end in a manner as explosive as The Blind Assassin did. It is a one of a kind read. Even though the submissiveness of women has been widely portrayed across the world of literature, this one is going to stay with me for a long time, all its perplexities and nuances that all converged to produce an epic masterpiece.
This tale containing another tale is a slow-paced, dark narrative but worth the time. It is a formidable read that imbibes the story of women. All the positive things said about the book and the accolades it received it certainly deserves. Curiously, it was the only book I read for my Man Booker Prize Month that doesn’t dwell largely in the exploration of human nature. Nevertheless, its impact is as lasting as the others.
Recommended for readers who are part of the feminist movement, readers who champion feminism, readers who want to read a well-written piece, readers who love the works of Margaret Atwood, readers who like reading award-winning books and readers who want an intellectual piece.
Not recommended for readers who like narratives with quicker pace, Richard and Winifred Griffen, and those who find the ideals of the feminist movement overbearing.
About the Author
To learn more about Margaret Atwood, please click here.