Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: book reviews, books, literature, margaret atwood, the blind assassin
As Robert at 101 Books wrote in his review of The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood’s writing style here is what makes the novel. The novel gives us three stories (that of Iris Chase, an 83-year-old woman living under the weight of her family history; that of Iris’s family and the Griffen family she married into; and a novella titled The Blind Assassin), and Atwood’s tremendous narrative skill keeps all the story lines rotating in tight relation with one another, each character’s voice clear and unforgettable.
The novel opens with the death of Iris’s sister, Laura: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (2). It’s what led to Laura’s death that Iris explores in the course of her novel. She reaches far back into family history, back to her grandparents, up to the present-day at the time of Laura’s death, when she was married to Richard Griffen, “the prominent manufacturer”, up to her true present-day, living alone, the last surviving member of her family, in Port Ticonderoga. Iris is a woman who has watched all those around her vanish or die: her father, her sister, her daughter, and her granddaughter, and Atwood creates for her the voice of a sometimes bitter woman riffling through her family’s history as she attempts to explain The Blind Assassin, the posthumously published novella by Laura Chase.
It’s this Blind Assassin within The Blind Assassin that provides us with some clue as to where Iris is taking us with the story of her family history. The Laura Chase novel takes place largely in a series of borrowed bedrooms and apartments around Toronto, with a woman and her lover meeting and him, during these meetings, telling a story of a sci-fi bent. It’s from this story that The Blind Assassin takes its name, there being an actual blind assassin here – one forced by his past and his city’s culture into being what he is. Early on the lover says of the town (which may have been destroyed, or may have been shrunk to a fraction of its former size) and its inhabitants that
The King knows what’s happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don’t know. They don’t know they’ve become so small. They don’t know they’re supposed to be dead. They don’t even know they’ve been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it’s the sun. (12)
There are moments throughout the novel-within-the-novel – more and more as we progress in the book – that seem to comment on Iris’s life and the lives she’s narrating. There’s a sense, throughout, that Iris has some knowledge that no one around her does, that she alone knows why Laura drove her car off a bridge in 1945. And though Iris’s present-day life consists mainly of taking short walks around town, stopping to pick at a donut and drink a coffee, there’s some beauty to Atwood’s writing of her aging and of Iris’s younger self. While Iris never states this explicitly, she writes of Laura as someone who is in some essential way a braver and better person than she is; it is only through writing that Iris gains her voice and the ability to say those things she never said in life. The posthumous publication of The Blind Assassin is key in allowing Iris’s escape from her husband, Richard Griffen (a man she married at 18, when he was 35; a business competitor of her father’s who, rather than trying to keep her father’s business running through a partnership, destroyed the competition and thus led to the death of Iris’s father), though his sister Winifred will manage to get her claws into both Iris’s daughter and granddaughter.
The Blind Assassin is the story of a family’s decline, but through the interior novel we gain some sense of the moments of beauty that came during that fall. Because, the longer you read, flipping from 83-year-old Iris to her younger self to a few chapters from The Blind Assassin to a clipping from the newspaper, the more it becomes clear that The Blind Assassin was not written in a vacuum but was, rather, directly influenced by the events of the family’s life. Iris’s “big reveals” at novel’s end, not just of what led to Laura’s death but of the history of the interior novel, are ones that the reader can see coming, but that remain remarkably satisfying.
This is a book to read and reread, a book that deserves to be loaned out to all who will take it. It’s an extraordinary family history, flush with lasting images and stories (in particular those from the Laura Chase Blind Assassin) that suggest the power of memory and family, and of the power of the written word to provide a way through histories and of regaining lost control over a life.