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Review: The Blind Assassin

Review: The Blind Assassin post image

Title: The Blind Assassin
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2000
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★★

Two Sentence Summary: Ten days after the end of WWII, Laura Chase drove her car off a bridge. Fifty years later, her older sister, Iris, tries to explain their lives and how the tragedy unfolded.

Two Sentence Review: I cannot think of a reason not to read this book. The Blind Assassin was awesome.

Long Review: I’m having trouble writing an appropriate summary for The Blind Assassin, so I’m just going to give you part of the back of the book:

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 Chase Griffen, sole surviving descendant of a once rich and influential Ontario family, 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 improvised 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.

Iris is, I think, one of my favorite fictional narrators of all time. She’s crotchety while still vulnerable, quick-witted even though her body is starting to fail her, and desperate to atone for mistakes the reader isn’t sure she has even made. Her first introduction in the story made me laugh out loud:

Then I stepped into the shower, holding on to the grip bar Myra’s bulled me into, careful not to drop the soap: I’m apprehensive of slipping. Still, the body must be hosed down, to get the smell of nocturnal darkness off the skin. I suspect myself of having an odour I myself can no longer detect — a stink of stale flesh and clouded, aging pee.

Dried, lotioned and powdered, sprayed like mildew, I was in some sense of the word restored. Only there was still the sensation of weightlessness, or rather of being about to step off a cliff. Each time I put a food out I set it down provisionally, as if the floor might give way underneath me. Nothing but surface tension holding me in place.

Maybe it’s just me, but the personality in that description is just lovely. I’m not sure I’d necessarily want to meet Iris on the street because I think she’d give me a dirty look, but she’s someone that I felt like I wanted to get to know over time and hear her stories.

Another strength of this book, and there are many, is the structure. The book uses three different storytelling strands. In one, newspaper clippings objectively announce the major life events for the characters. In the second, the reader gets the text of Laura’s bestselling book, The Blind Assassin, which Iris published after Laura’s death. And finally,we see Iris, desperately trying to write down her version of the story as an old woman nearing death.

With so many people narrating, the book could easily get confused, but it doesn’t. It’s a testament to how well Atwood writes that it never happens. The book also maintains the major plot mysteries all the way until the end. Despite the huge amount of information, I had no idea about my major questions until the end — what prompted Laura’s suicide? Who wrote The Blind Assassin? And who is The Blind Assassin actually about?

At one point midway through, I started taking notes and picking out clues to try and solve the mysteries. For every clue that made me lean one way, I’d come across another that made me second guess my conclusions. A friend I was reading the book with had the same reaction, and we had a bunch of great lunches and Google Talk sessions trying to figure it out. In some ways, I think it was almost more fun not knowing the answers — when the big reveal happens (in characteristically grouchy but sweet Iris fashion), it’s almost a bit of a let down.

I guess another reason this book hooked me so much is because it helped remind me what I loved about reading literature in college. There’s so much in this book that I felt I could analyze, dig into, and explore. I loved the theme of writing and the questions about who has the power to narrate and tell their own stories and what the ability to write means for a character. It’s a book that I want to go back to and look at those specific questions to see what else I can figure out.

The Blind Assassin really was an amazing book. It’s one I’m going to read again, for sure, because I know there were hints and details and nuances I missed the first time around. It’s a book worth reading that I highly recommend.

Other Reviews: Care’s Online Book Club (and part 2) | Things Mean a Lot | kiss a cloud | Caribousmom | Trish’s Reading Nook | Farm Lane Books | The Literary Omnivore |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Care February 9, 2010, 10:23 am

    Yes, this was one of those books that I was shocked to realize was over 500 pages. It certainly didn’t feel like a chunkster (and I HATE long books, really I do.)
    EXCELLENT review. 🙂 You picked a terrific excerpt, too.

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:26 pm

      Care: Me too, I couldn’t believe it was that long — it definitely doesn’t feel like it. I loved pretty much everything that Iris wrote, but that first intro just made me laugh.

  • Savvy Working Gal February 9, 2010, 12:25 pm

    I loved this book too; it was my favorite read of 2009. Thanks for the review.

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:27 pm

      Savvy Working Girl: I’m glad you liked it too. I always get a little nervous giving a book a glowing review in case other people disagree 🙂

  • Jeanne February 9, 2010, 3:15 pm

    I don’t remember the good things you call to my attention…guess I need to reread this one at some point.

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:28 pm

      Jeanne: I hope you have a chance to give it another try, I thought it was an excellent book.

  • Kathy February 9, 2010, 3:41 pm

    I’ve never read any Atwood, but I’ve been wanting to. This sounds like the perfect one to start with.

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:29 pm

      Kathy: I think it would be a great start — it has some of the themes of The Handmaid’s Tale, but I think it’s constructed in a more interesting way.

  • Jenny February 9, 2010, 6:49 pm

    This sounds so neat – I love intertwining narratives, and I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, so this sounds like a good one to go to next. It sounds like a great book for a rainy day.

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:29 pm

      Jenny: Yes, if you like The Handmaid’s Tale and love complicated narratives, this book is great. I love the way the different strands echoed and tied together.

  • The Literary Omnivore February 9, 2010, 7:47 pm

    I really loved this book, and it’s so, so marvelous. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I reviewed it last spring.

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:30 pm

      The Literary Omnivore: Thanks for leaving your review — I’ll add it to my list. It is marvelous 🙂

  • diane February 9, 2010, 8:39 pm

    Yay, Yay, Yay…this is on my 2010 reading list, so I’m thrilled to read such a positive review.

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:30 pm

      diane: Awesome! I hope you love it when you get to read it.

  • Nicole February 9, 2010, 8:47 pm

    I am so glad that you love this one so much. I have literally had this book on my shelf for years! I am in the middle of a big time purge of books and everything else, but it sounds like this is one that I need to hang on to for just a tad bit longer…until I read it!

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:32 pm

      Nicole: No, don’t get rid of this one, I think you’ll like it when you get a chance to read it.

  • Lisa February 9, 2010, 11:21 pm

    I think I’m beginning to wish that this were the Atwood book I had sitting next to my nightstand!

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:32 pm

      Lisa: Which book do you have?

  • Rebecca Reid February 10, 2010, 3:00 pm

    I have this one in my pile! I didn’t get to it in 2009, so maybe this is the year!

    • Kim February 10, 2010, 8:33 pm

      Rebecca Reid: I hope you get to it, and I hope you like it! I had it on my pile for awhile, so I was glad I got the chance to read it (finally!).

  • Jennifer February 10, 2010, 9:46 pm

    I love Atwood’s writing. She is a genius. The way she can weave together plot devises and use different narrations to reel readers in is amazing. I’m really glad that you enjoyed this book. I haven’t read it yet, but now I know that it is one I must get around to reading soon.

    • Kim February 12, 2010, 5:35 pm

      Jennifer: I agree, she’s such a genius. I loved the way the narratives and plot points twisted together in this one — totaly impressive. I hope you get to read it too!

  • Aarti February 11, 2010, 10:33 am

    Your two sentence summary convinced me! I have this on my shelf and must CLEARLY get it down from there. I hope I can do so soon! So many books!!

    • Kim February 12, 2010, 5:36 pm

      Aarti: I always struggle with how to write short comments about books I loved because nothing ever seems good enough. I’m glad it was convincing.

  • Julie February 11, 2010, 7:24 pm

    My next book is going to be a Margaret Atwood book that I just bought, Oryx and Crake. This one looks really good too though! I’ll have to put it on my TBR list for sure!

    • Kim February 12, 2010, 5:37 pm

      Julie: I’m looking forward to reading more more Atwood, I hadn’t read her in quite awhile. I’ve heard good things about Oryx and Crake.

  • softdrink February 11, 2010, 9:39 pm

    Great review. I want to read more Atwood, but I just finished The Year of the Flood, and I think I need to space out my Atwood reads. She’s pretty intense.

    • Kim February 12, 2010, 5:38 pm

      softdrink: She is intense, I think a break between is good. I think breaks between books for any author is a good thing.

  • Kari February 12, 2010, 10:58 am

    Wow, interesting review, especially since you loved it so much. I HATED this book. I thought it was so boring and convoluted and I didn’t care about anyone in it. I read it a couple years ago; now you’re making me question my judgments!

    • Kim February 12, 2010, 5:39 pm

      Kari: I’m sorry you hated it! It does take a little time to get into, but I thought it was so good. And I loved Iris, even if many of the other characters were hard to like. Just because I loved it doesn’t mean it’s for everyone (even though I wish!).

  • Care June 30, 2010, 9:03 am

    Methinks this is another good recommendation from my wonderful 90+ yo reader friend who keeps asking me to loan her more of my books. I wonder if I still have it… She just read Ethan Frome (‘it was depressing’) and Are You There God It’s Me Margaret (‘delightful!’)

    • Kim June 30, 2010, 9:21 pm

      Care: Ha ha, she sounds like a hoot. I loved this book — it was just so…. awesome. I felt smarter while I was reading it, and then after I was finished. Lots of great mysteries and things happen.