Book review: THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin: a novel by Margaret Atwood, Anchor Books ©2000

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. 

Imagine a braid: three strands interwoven to form a whole rope. This is The Blind Assassin: three stories intertwined to form a coherent whole. Iris Chase Griffen is now an old woman, she is the sole survivor of an old rich South Ontario (Canada) family. The book opens with a news item of her younger sister driving a car down a bridge, effectively committing suicide.

Iris narrates her own frailty in old age, and writes about her childhood in the 1930s to the 1940s. Her mother died early, leaving both sisters under the care of their father and their caretaker Renee. Her father, a war veteran still suffering from trauma, doesn't prove to be a good father. Laura is a strange girl, who takes things literally and whose odd ways make her an anomaly. A young man enters the picture, Alex Thomas, who becomes a friend to both of them.

Between Iris's present situation and her childhood recollections, a new, entirely different story is inserted in between her chapters: a novel Iris wrote, The Blind Assassin, about two unnamed lovers meeting in secret. The woman is rich and high-society, while the man is a hiding revolutionary writing pulp science fiction stories. In their meetings, he tells her a made-up story about a long-ago, faraway kingdom called Sakiel-Norn, reminiscent of ancient Biblical cities. Here is a fictional world so believable in its imaginary construction: gods, customs, kings, slaves, assassins.

Here we have another love story: a virgin maiden about to be sacrificed to a god, and a blind assassin whose mission is to kill her. They play a small role in the complicated politics of the place, and they are caught in the middle of the rulers within the city and the unknown nomadic tribe waiting outside the walls to conquer their city and kill all their people.

Sounds pretty complicated now, doesn't it? I'm not adding the aliens yet. But there will be aliens! Metafiction (stories within stories) work so well here.

Meanwhile, Laura and Iris grow up, sheltered from the outside world while their father's affairs are slowly degrading. The lives of the sisters change when during their father's business crisis, he reluctantly arranges a marriage for Iris in the hope of saving their family fortune. Iris, at eighteen, finds herself to be Mrs. Richard Griffen. Richard is new rich, and more than twenty years older than her. Winifred, Richard's socialite sister, makes life difficult for Iris. The Griffens make the sisters' life worse. Iris, once young and gentle, learns their game and their world, is now cruel in her own way. She has to adapt to survive in this new world. She has one daughter, Aimee. Meanwhile, Laura gets estranged from her and other events (some of which are Iris' doing) lead Laura to suicide.

Aside from the plot, what's striking about Atwood's novels are their style and the author's voice. I love poetic writing, where every turn of phrase and artistically-arranged sentence produces a breathless effect, of shivers running through your skin. Every page is a sensational delight, and it makes you want to slow down and savor every word. There's no book I've highlighted, dog-eared, and underlined this much. I've read two of her novels before: The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye, but I think this is far better than the others.

The dying Iris writes to finally reveal the truth once and for all. Her life has been filled with loss, pain, regret, and deception, but in the end its truth that matters.

I recommend this book as it is such a unique experience, worth reading every page until the last. This book has earned a lot of awards, and this deserves to be called the first best novel of the new millenium.

In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It's loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.

“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.”

“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.”

“Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get?" 📚

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