The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
A novel within a novel with little stories nested in between, this is an intricately woven tale about two sisters’ loves and lives, spanning over six decades. There are three distinct sections to this novel: a series of flashbacks by an octogenarian who initially claims she’s unsure who she is or why she’s cataloguing all of this, a series of local newspaper articles detailing the social events, political ambitions, and deaths of some of the more prominent characters, and a novel (also titled The Blind Assassin) that switches between detailing a love affair between a wanted man and a socialite and a fantastical science fiction story about an ancient destroyed world where virgins are still sacrificed and the woven blankets are measured by how many children lost their sight weaving them.  If I had to be picky, I would say that yes, some of the twists are a little predictable, but overall, this is, in my opinion, Atwood at her best — it’s thoroughly well-written, crafted, thoughtful, provocative, and masterful. Rereading it now, almost a decade later, it is still my favorite work by her.

Greater Detail:
Our two main protagonists are Laura Chase and Iris Chase Griffen, the wealthy daughters of Captain Chase, an alcoholic war veteran who runs a button factory more by moral principles than economic realities.  They’re more or less raised by a loyal servant named Reenie after their mother passes away (complications from childbirth), with their father slowly running the business into the ground, and neither of them really trained for life outside of their sprawling estate.  Though the tone with which they interact with one another is often quite pitiless, these are both strong, engaging characters, struggling to make sense of the world around them.

We begin with Laura’s death: though it is officially ruled an accident, witnesses say she drives off the cliff on purpose, and one of the leading threads of the story is for us to find out how we got to such a pivotal point. We learn that Iris had a novel by Laura published posthumously, and that this book ended up being quite scandalous (for the time period).  Detailing an illicit love affair between a socialite and a science fiction pulp writer, it’s something that her sister Iris notes (in the present) would hardly turn heads now, but at the time, was racy and divisive enough to inspire hate mail and censorship, as well as memorial awards decades later.  Further, the book had personal ramifications for the characters in sometimes surprising ways, triggering a suicide and other reveals.

Some of the parts with Iris in the present feel a little slower relative to the pacing and urgency with which the characters interact in the novel-within-a-novel setting, but overall, it’s nicely juxtaposed throughout, and though these are women who have survived a series of tragedies, sometimes by judging themselves and others quite mercilessly, you feel for them both — the way they’ve purposefully and accidentally influenced, loved, protected and hurt each other, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes with no awareness whatsoever.

I read and loved it a decade ago, when it first came out, and though I’ve since read almost everything (from poetry to her novels) by Atwood, this remains my favorite — its plot feels the most ambitious, and the relationships and characters detailed, sharp and unforgettable.

Comparisons to Other Books and Authors:
ne of the things I’ve loved about both Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut is that they tend to tread and blend the lines between science fiction and what’s more traditionally considered literary fiction. The novel-in-a-novel part of this are the free-form, grammar-be-damned styles that Vonngeut, or perhaps Junot Diaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, might use.  This has been balanced wonderfully by the more lethargic present-time ruminations, and the generational tension and stories mired in decades of familial history is similar to Empire Falls by Richard Russo.  I still think it’s Atwood’s most successfully ambitious and balanced work, with protagonists more deserving of empathy than our lead in Alias Grace and technically far more well crafted than Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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