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Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin Legolas Send a noteboard - 01/03/2012 10:16:56 PM
This is the third book by Margaret Atwood I read, after A Handmaid's Tale a few years back and Alias Grace just last month, and that's a reading order I can recommend to anyone, as I like her more with every book. Though it's possible I've reached the peak of her writing now; at least, this seems to be her most critically acclaimed novel, and the one that won a Man Booker Prize.

The novel consists of four intertwined narratives: the frame story of Iris Chase, a 93-year old lonely woman in some small Ontario town, looking back at her life; Iris' life story as retold by herself; the novel-within-a-novel called The Blind Assassin, by Iris' younger sister Laura; and the story told by one character to another in The Blind Assassin, which is the only one to actually involve a blind assassin (in the literal sense, at least). Sounds complicated, but isn't. Atwood handles the intertwining deftly, and is so kind as to indicate in the chapter headings which sections are from The Blind Assassin and which are not.

Iris and Laura Chase are the scions of a wealthy industrial family which comes apart in the economic crisis of the 1930s, leaving both teenagers under the care of Iris' "nouveau riche" husband Richard and his sister Winifred. As we learn from the beginning of the novel, Laura dies in a car accident in 1945, and Richard is found dead only two years later on the Chase family's estates that he "inherited" - mere months after the posthumous publication of Laura's novel. The secrets behind both deaths are what drives the plot of the novel, though it would do the novel an injustice to reduce it to that mystery.

Laura is the most sympathetic and arguably interesting character in the book - eccentric, passionate, unpredictable, self-absorbed but kind-hearted. Iris seems passive, boring and listless in comparison - but then, she's leaving out rather important bits of her story, until the final chapters. They are the only really developed characters in the book, but they are enough.

The novel is interesting enough as a historical novel, with the (fictional) newspaper clippings in particular playing an important role in bringing the Canada of the first half of the twentieth century to life - and the role of women in it. Then there's Iris' life as a nonagenarian, the small or not so small humiliations and feelings of estrangement she encounters in her dealings with other people and the radically altered world she's living in. The fantasy/sci-fi stories contained in it are a nice touch as well, a homage to the pulp sci-fi of the thirties (though I don't think they're so important as to make this book a speculative fiction novel in any real sense.). But the brilliance of this novel, in my opinion, lies in the structure of the plot with its four narratives, plus the relationship between the two sisters that forms the connection between those narratives.

I don't really find much to criticize in the novel, though there are things that I can imagine would not appeal to some: Iris' chapters in the present can be repetitive (intentionally so, of course; most nonagenarians do indeed have a rather repetitive and boring life, after all), which is part of the reason why the middle part of the book is not precisely what I'd call a page-turner. And readers who start out wanting to read about blind assassins, and subsequently have a particular interest in the story-in-a-story-in-a-story about the blind assassin, will find themselves rather disappointed by its ending or, arguably, lack of an ending.

So I'm inclined to recommend this book without reservations to all readers; there are some who may find parts of it slow or boring, but even they should still find it worthwhile in the end. For others, it'll be a masterpiece from start to finish.
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Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin - 01/03/2012 10:16:56 PM 7923 Views

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