This 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.)