Title: The Blind Assassin
Author: Margaret Atwood
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.
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!