Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, boating on the river. Such items do not assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge.
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more works by authors I hadn’t yet explored. So far, I’ve been doing pretty well with sticking to this goal: Judy Blume, Junot Diaz, Han Kang, and so on. But lately, I’ve also been gravitating towards Atwood. Maybe it’s because I’ve always enjoyed her work (since I was assigned Oryx and Crake in my AP lit class), or maybe it’s because I was blown away by Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Either way, I’ve been eager to expand my knowledge of her work.
I first attempted to read The Blind Assassin on a very long plane ride. And as happens on long plane rides, I simply couldn’t get into it. Something about the cramped seating, that airplane smell, and the incessant noise always hinders my ability to wrap my mind around a complex story. I finally picked this one up again, and I’m glad I did. The Blind Assassin is a work of historical fiction centered around the two Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, and their lives growing up in southern Ontario.
The novel employs several stories within a story: Iris alone as an old woman, living without family; the main narrative of the story, recounting Iris and Laura’s childhoods and family history; the novel within the novel, the titular The Blind Assassin; and various newspaper clippings that present the “historical” public face of the Chases and the Griffens, as compared to the more candid tales related by Iris. It sounds like a lot to take in, and it is, initially, although once you become accustomed to the rhythm of the stories and the characters, it’s easy to follow.
As I’ve explored more of Atwood’s work, I’ve become more familiar with recurring themes and motifs, like the aforementioned stories within a story. The Blind Assassin explores the role of women throughout history, world history from a Canadian perspective, the subjectivity of truth, mental health, and even dystopian topics to an extent. I found the protagonist, Iris, somewhat similar to Grace in Alias Grace as well. At the beginning of the novel, I found Iris drab and uninteresting, but as the novel progressed, I found her image to be carefully and even manipulatively presented (by herself, since her character also narrates most of the story), as a commentary on how carefully women chose to (or needed to) portray themselves in society. There’s a point in the novel at which things click and you become increasingly aware of how each of the separate stories fit into each other – that’s definitely when I began to enjoy the novel and read more carefully.
YES OR NO?: YES. While not my favorite of Atwood’s novels, The Blind Assassin boasts a complex and engaging story, complete with historical insight and flowing prose. I’d recommend it to someone looking to delve into Atwood but may not be interested in dystopian themes.