The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

If it wasn’t clear from my relative silence, the last six weeks or so has been exceptionally busy, which has slowed both my reading and writing. I only managed to finish one non-academic book in October, barely slipping Margaret Atwood’s Booker Award Winning The Blind Assassin in under the wire. An astute reader, however, will note that October is now more than two weeks gone. I didn’t write an immediate review because the book required some digestion and then a number of real world events, including guests, a nasty head cold, teaching, job applications, and a presidential election colluded to keep me from the review. None of this should be taken to indicate a lack of appreciation for this book, the second of Atwood’s that I have read.

Atwood weaves together three distinct stories in The Blind Assassin. The frame story are the recollections of Iris Chase Griffen, the daughter one Ontario industrialist and the widow of another, writing her life story ostensibly for her estranged daughter. As such, this narrative slips between the first half of the twentieth century and explains hushed history of the Chase family through the wars and depressions, deaths and affairs, and the contemporary time and Iris’ old age. Interspersed with these stories are a variety of newspaper clippings that illuminate something about the Chase family, Iris’ marriage to Richard Griffen, or her sister Laura.

This first set of stories focuses on the relationships in Iris’ life, first with her angelic and sincere sister Laura and the much more problematic relationships with her husband and Winifred, her husband’s sister. Iris agrees to the marriage because she is convinced that this is the only way to save her father’s business and thence his life. Despite the veneer of love at the outset, Winifred and Richard expect Iris to obey them, as though they are her parents and overlords more so than as sister-in-law and husband. Iris accepts her place as would a martyr, but, when their father Norval Chase dies, Laura is exposed to Richard’s predilections. The reader knows from the outset that something has happened, since the book opens with “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

Then there is a story-within-a-story, the acclaimed science fiction novel attributed to Laura and published under the title The Blind Assassin. This story has a similar structure to the overall story, alternating between one narrative about an illicit affair between an married woman and an renegade, and the science fiction story that the lovers tell each other during their assignations. Suffice it to say that the novel is not entirely a work of fiction.

The final product is a meticulously crafted story about power, sexual violence, and family secrets that frequently remain just in the shadows and are all the more potent for being just out of reach. This short synopsis does not do The Blind Assassin justice since its combination of power and beauty develops along the nexus of these various relationships, including Iris’ eternal battle with Winifred and the still-troubled relationship with Laura more than four decades after her death.

And yet, I think I still preferred The Handmaid’s Tale. The comparison I keep coming back to is with the works of Orwell, where I believe that Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a better novel, but I prefer Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Blind Assassin is objectively a stronger, more complex, and more subtle novel than is The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are excellent, but I slightly prefer the latter.

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Next up, I am nearly finished reading The Wall of Storms, the second book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty “Silkpunk” Epic. It is certainly different than the first book in the series, but is still very, very good. I haven’t given too much thought to what I am going to read after this, but am leaning on the fiction side toward Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, while my Thanksgiving Break reading for non-fiction is going to be Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.

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