I remember promising myself that after reading The Historian, The Accursed, and The Once and Future King (all very long, dense books), I would give myself a break and read something easier on the brain and emotions. Instead, I decided to read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This book is decidedly not easy on the brain or emotions. It isn’t a tremendously long book, but it is the sort of book that you do not want to skim and, therefore, cannot read very quickly.
“The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.” —Indiebound
The book is always shifting between newspaper articles, Laura’s book, and Iris’s narration of the events of her youth. What emerges, as the story of Laura and Iris progresses through Iris’s memories, is a picture of young women struggling to find their own way in a world dominated and controlled by men. As daughters of a man with a fortune, their course is essentially plotted before they are even born. It is clear from Iris’s tone and Laura’s behavior exactly what they think of this, but each woman deals with the expectations in ways that are as unique as the girls themselves are.
Several things about this book made me really enjoy it. Atwood’s style of prose is, as usual, masterful. Her language is quite unlike any other author’s, and I never regret spending time reading whatever story she creates for her readers. Iris, in the parts where she narrates, speaks from a place of great age and experience. She has lived her whole life and is nearing the end of it. Her voice is at once defiant and pleading, reminding young readers that the elderly are still living human beings with needs and feelings. She is a reminder to not write off those who have aged to the point of creaking senility–they still have stories to tell, wisdom to impart, and great value to add to the experience of someone with years left to live.
Perhaps the most interesting element of The Blind Assassin was the sprinkling of dystopian chapters of the novel that Laura wrote shortly before she died. It was published posthumously and Iris spent the remaining years of her life dealing with the reactions of both fans and foes of the work. The work itself is almost a laundry list of all the things a young woman of that time was never supposed to know about or enjoy, which was why it made such an impact. More than that, it was a poignant jab at both the world that Laura and Iris were prisoners of and, in a way, the world that we inhabit today. Both a work of subtle science-fiction and a social commentary, it said more about society than Laura ever could have said directly.
I highly recommend The Blind Assassin. Atwood always has something to say, and she always does so by telling a brilliant, engrossing story. This novel is no exception.