Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin opens with death, the young Laura Chase plunging off a bridge to her doom, which is ruled as an accident, but possibly a suicide. Her sister Iris discovers a collection of notebooks in her possession, notebooks that Laura had left specifically for her to find. Inside these notebooks is, among other things, a novel. Posthumously published, it creates a strong reputation for the deceased woman, critics considering it a tragedy of letters that Chase died so young.
From here, we wander through several chapters of Laura's novel, interspersed with excerpts from newspapers cataloguing other family member's deaths. Laura's novel concerns two young lovers, doing what young lovers do, but between that, the man - nameless for a very long time, an author of pulpy science fiction, and a clear, obvious story-link 'enigma' hook - tells the woman - also nameless - a story about the people of Zycron, a fictional planet. He outlines the customs, beliefs, habits, inserting the details she wants - zombified women, for one - and embellishing upon his own ideas. The story is much, much more interesting than the relationship between the two people, which is hardly understandable. It deals with a blind assassin and a mute young girl, the assassin sent to kill the girl, the girl sentenced to death in a grisly annual ritual to appease the many Gods of Zycron. This fantasy/science fiction blend is quite interesting, and is told through the voice of the male lover, which works to great effect. Rather than slogging through pointless side-story exposition, he and the woman banter, joke, discuss the particulars of the story, enjoying the creating as much as the creation.
Most of the novel is Iris' autobiography, and at the time of narration, she is an old woman. 'The temptation is to stay inside; to subside into the kind of recluse whom neighbourhood children regard with derision and a little awe; to let the hedges and the weeds grow up, to allow the doors to rust shut, to lie on my bed in some gown-shaped garment and let my hair lengthen and spread out over the pillow and my fingernails to sprout into claws, while candle wax drips onto the carpet.' She feels helpless, tired and useless, or thoughtful and curious and, in many ways, jealous of her dead sister whose memory taints everything in her life. Far from being Iris, she is Laura's sister, a title which chaffs, even at eighty years old. She is a bitter old woman, bitter and alone, which can sometimes be annoying to read - twenty pages of anger directed at the world is quite tiresome to read - but for the most part is enjoyable, the language 'historical' in a sense, and sad.
Unfortunately, the next 80 pages or so are wasted on a history of Iris's family, from her grandfather
down. This is an interesting section, it is true, but after the intriguing opening, it feels like a robbery. Why would I care about such things when my appetite for the fictional story of Laura has been growing? Perhaps if this section was placed later, or earlier, it would have been more warmly received, but as it is, the insertion seems a mistake.
We are then taken through the particulars of Iris' life, and the reason for the preceding history becomes clear. Clear, but still not appreciated. It is a shame that, with such an interesting opening, we are then forced to ignore and forget about it while a hundred, two hundred pages of family history go by. Happily, this sensation leaves us two hundred or so pages in, as the 'Blind Assassin' chapters come back with great regularity. If this had been kept up for the entirety of the novel, perhaps the problem of the Chase family history would not have existed.
The novel is filled with trite little one-liners to keep us reading, keep us guessing. A shame, because Atwood's writing and plotting is perfectly functional without this. Why do I need to read lines like, 'Aimee's death was not my fault', or 'Compared to where he might be, it's a palace'. The answer is: I don't. And yet there they are, right in the text. It's unfortunate that she felt it was necessary to insert these meaningless foreshadows. As a literary technique, foreshadowing is fantastic, and she uses it often in subtle and clever ways. But keep-me-guessing lines such as these are simply not good enough, and were probably the biggest disappointment of the novel.
But the writing is, for the most part, simply enjoyable to read. Who could not appreciate this: 'We pass a few more franchises - smiling chickens offering platters of their own fried body parts, a grinning Mexican wielding tacos.', or . But then there are less pleasant lines such as: Did I snore? ...I couldn't bring myself to ask. In case you're wondering, vanity never ends.' I hadn't asked; I don't care. But then a passage like this comes along: 'Why is a honeymoon called that? Lune de miel, moon of honey - as if the moon itself is not a cold and airless and barren sphere of pockmarked rock, but soft, golden, luscious - a luminous candied plum, the yellow kind, melting in the mouth and sticky as desire, so achingly sweet it makes your teeth hurt.', and Atwood is well and truly forgiven.
The novels moves along, chronicling Iris' life. It is unfortunate that the young Iris is presented as so vapid, so unaware so - stupid. Thankfully, the older Iris realises this, it is something for which she is quite apologetic and sad. She never fully understood the implications other people had on her life, or the lives of her sister and father. By the time she did, it was far too late. The older Iris is bitter and sad, but she never really descends into angst or insincere emotion - there are times when she chides herself for being melodramatic. This is an interesting way of presenting the story, because frankly, I had no sympathy for the young Iris - whatever happened to her was her own fault, and as the pampered, never-worked-a-day-in-her-life lazy wife of a rich man, the reasons for being 'on her side' are few - but the older Iris is very sympathetic, a sad, sorry woman who demands - and deserves - respect and caring.
Reference and review site
McClelland (Publisher publicity page)
Guardian Unlimited Review
Geocities Fansite Review