The Blind Assassin (reread)

blind-assassinThis novel by Margaret Atwood begins with the aftermath–with 25-year-old Laura Chase driving off a bridge, possibly on purpose. Iris Chase Griffin, Laura’s sister and our narrator, then discovers Laura’s notebooks. A few pages later, we learn that Laura wrote a book, published posthumously in 1947 and titled The Blind Assassin. The rest of the Atwood’s novel tells us how that book came to be and what was in it.

There are, by my count, five separate strands in this book. There’s Iris in the present day, an elderly woman living alone. There’s the story Iris is writing, about her and Laura’s past. These two stories alternate with three additional strands. The first is Laura’s novel, The Blind Assassin, about a pair of lovers meeting in secret. One of the lovers is a writer, and when the couple meets, he tells his lover a story of a virgin given in sacrifice on a faraway planet and rescued by a blind assassin, who originally came to take her place and murder the king when he came to claim his prize. Interspersed among the chapters of Laura’s novel are news clippings, recounting important events in the lives of Iris and Laura and their family.

This probably sounds confusing, but it isn’t, at least it wasn’t for me. Some of the details get lost between all the stories, but the emotional and thematic currents are strong enough to create a feeling of coherence, even as the story jumps through time–and space. I’ve probably said before that I’m more interested in how characters get to an ending than in what that ending will be, which makes me a sucker for a story that starts at the ending. Endings raise so many questions. Why did Laura die? What’s in the book, and why was it such a scandal? As we move through the narrative, more questions about the past emerge, usually from the newspaper clippings. Why is Iris estranged from the granddaughter? What happened between Iris and her husband? And what about Iris’s sister-in-law, Winifred?

The sisters’ story is not necessarily new or original. Iris and Laura were daughters of a wealthy factory owner whose fortunes eventually fell. To save the family business, Iris was married off to Richard Griffith, an even wealthier industrialist whose new money could give Iris a future as her old-money background gave him a push up the social ladder. Laura, the more free-spirited younger daughter, bucked against the system that kept women and the poor in their place. And then she died. The story is familiar; it’s the details and the way they’re shared that are new.

In the book, Atwood addresses the many ways people, and especially women, are limited  by their circumstances. Not all react to the limits in the same way. Iris is resigned, Laura rebels, and Winifred works the system to her advantage. But these are all outward actions. We don’t actually know how the characters feel about their circumstances, but we can–and must–infer a lot. Laura is open with her opinions, but Iris, our narrator, holds back sometimes. And we know Laura through Iris. There are key pieces of information Iris does not provide, and she too relies on inference rather than knowledge. Her account is slippery, and although it’s clear that she has some legitimate grievances, she’s also interested in self-justification. She’s setting the record straight, but the record is Iris’s, not Laura’s, not Richard’s, not Winifred’s. When I got to the end, I had to wonder what they would have said.

In the meantime, we’ve got the novel within the novel. Because this was my second time reading The Blind Assassin, I picked up quickly on a few significant facts about the novel that aren’t spelled out until the end of the book. (I could not have told you any of those facts before the reread, but I had a vague recollection of a question about it that a first-time reader may not think to ask.) Aside from the news clippings, these chapters were the least interesting part of the book to me, but they’re important because they do provide a sense of how these characters might think about love and passion.

And the science fiction story the lovers tell has some parallels to the Chase sisters’ story. You have a virgin given as an offering, a saboteur who becomes a rescuer, a war that disrupts everything. Here, the story of the sisters is transmuted into an epic, with consequences that could shift whole nations, even whole planets. The parallels, which are more thematic than allegorical, seem to fall apart after a while, but I wonder if that is a consequence of the fraying of the relationship that props up the story. As things fall apart, that center cannot hold.

This is among my favorites of Atwood’s novels (along with the The Robber Bride and Cat’s Eye), and it holds up to rereading–or at least it does if your reading memory is a bad as mine is. All I could have told you before rereading is that it had sisters in it, and there was some kind of scandal/mystery involving a science fiction novel. And that’s only sort of correct. I reread this month for a book group, and I’m glad that I took the time to do so, because it enabled me to blog about it, giving myself a memory aid for the next time I want to explain why I liked it so much. (I can’t be the only blogger to use my blog that way.)

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18 Responses to The Blind Assassin (reread)

  1. BookerTalk says:

    This would qualify as a good re- read for me too because I’m sure I missed some of the connections between the strands. The science fiction story was the least interesting part (I’m not a lover of that genre anyway) so tended to skip it. Like you I am not convinced that we get the whole truth from Lisa.

    • Teresa says:

      Even having forgotten most of the details about the plot, I think I was better able to see the connections this time around.
      I like science fiction, but I think the science fiction story wasn’t supposed to be a particularly good one. The potential thematic connections were what made it interesting.

  2. I picked up a used hardback copy of this years ago at Second Story Books and have yet to read it. But you have me interested in it again. First there was your Twitter admission that you couldn’t remember the ending but the book was still remembered as a favorite. Love that kind of bookish honesty. And then your description here… Love layered stories! Now I just have to find it.

    • Teresa says:

      Before I started blogging, it was pretty typical for me to remember the impression I had of a book, while forgetting the details. I think you’ll like this. The construction of it is really ingenius.

  3. gaskella says:

    All I can remember was that I didn’t enjoy it the first time I read it, but I would like to re-read it now, properly!

  4. litlove says:

    This is one of her books I still have ahead of me to read. I’m looking forward to it very much now (I also think The Robber Bride is one of my favourites). Wonderful review, Teresa.

    • Teresa says:

      This has a lot in common with The Robber Bride, particularly in its structure and interest in women’s relationships. Women’s relationships are something I think Atwood writes about really well.

  5. cbjames says:

    This is one of the Atwoods I love. I either love her work or really hate it. I’m keeping my copy for a reread sometime in the future, probably around 2022 when I just short of retirement.

    • Teresa says:

      Alias Grace is the only one of her books that I’ve outright disliked, but I’m less enamored of her speculative fiction than a lot of people seem to be. I hope that now that she’s done with the Oryx and Crake books, she’ll write another book along these lines.

      This has been on my reread list for years, and I only got around to it because my book group chose it.

  6. I have been meaning to re-read this one. I must admit the first time I read it (at the time of publication) I did some serious skimming of the SF bits. I really need to give it another go. I too, did not like Alias Grace. I re-read it last year and that confirmed my dislike of the book. And, although I loved the MaddAddam trilogy, I too, would like to see her go back to a more “normal” narrative. At least one more before she quits entirely

    • Teresa says:

      So many people love Alias Grace that I feel I must reread it, but it’s not a high priority. I’d rather reread books I’m confident I’ll like.

  7. Christy says:

    This is still the only book I’ve read by Atwood. I read it a few years ago, and liked the writing but wasn’t enthralled by the book overall, despite acknowledging that it was well-done. I like what you say about it being a book that sets the record straight about Iris, not about anyone else. It’s true that from Iris’ perspective, there is really no one else to like, and even Iris herself I more pitied than anything. I found the book a bit oppressive in that way, but memorable.

    • Teresa says:

      Oppressive is a good word for it–and I think it’s meant to feel that way. Iris’s point of view is so limited that we get little more than glimpses of events that are outside her experience.

      One person in my book group remarked that Atwood’s work, especially this book, strikes her as cerebral and hard to get attached to, but worth reading. Sounds like your experience was the same.

  8. Jenny says:

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Robber Bride and Cat’s Eye are also my two favorites of hers (along with some of her collections like Good Bones and Simple Murders.) I believe I have actually not read this one, which makes me think I’ll probably love it. On the list it goes!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m surprised you haven’t read this! I do think you’d like it. One of these days, I’ll get around to reading one of her collections. I tried one years ago (I think it was Wilderness Tips), but I gave up after just a few stories. I’m more into short fiction now, though, so it’s worth trying again.

  9. Jeanne says:

    You’re definitely not alone in using your blog as a memory aid! I read this novel some years ago (pre-blogging, so that helps me date it–see, memory aid) and found it forgettable. The speculative fiction ones are the Atwood novels I love most.

    • Teresa says:

      I sometimes look back at old posts to remind myself what a book was about, and then I get annoyed if past me was coy with plot details. It’s also why I blog about all the books I read.

      Given that I couldn’t remember a thing about this book before I reread it, I guess it was forgettable for me too, but not in the same way. I did remember liking it a lot, and I liked it a lot the second time.

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