” Curiosity is not our only motive: love or grief or despair or hatred is what drives us on. We’ll spy relentlessly on the dead: we’ll open their letters, we’ll read their journals, we’ll go through their trash, hoping for a hint, a final word, an explanation, from those who have deserted us—who’ve left us holding the bag, which is often a good deal emptier than we’d supposed. ” (Part XIII, p.494)
I have been both intimidated by the seeming complexity of the novel and in awe of Margaret Atwood’s wit. Finishing the book justifies both. Though The Blind Assassin‘s plot sounds invincibly complicated—or at the very least convoluted, Atwood pulls it off effortlessly. Woven together in variations of voices and styles are four stories, told partly in newspaper clippings, in chapters of another book, and first-person narratives. The novel within a novel gives its title to the whole of the book.
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off the bridge. (Part I, p.1)
So the novel begins, lending an air of mystery, as to who might have been insidiously responsible for the accident. Laura’s story–what leads to her tragic death–but this story comes much later. The primary narrator is Iris Chase Griffen, 83, who is telling the story in flashback. She reflects the childhood years, just before the war, when she and Laura grew up in the house of Avilion. When the end of World War I marks the downfall of their father’s button factory, which manufactured cheap buttons and no-frill clothing, the factory was taken over by his rival Richard Griffen. His proposal to Iris is more a business deal that would bail the girls out of their father’s fiasco. Iris’s marriage to Richard founders from the very beginning because it does not hinge on love. So Iris ceases to exist as herself, but a being pruned to the preference and intention of Richard and his controlling sister.
I and the girl in the picture have ceased to be the same person. I am her outcome, the result of the life she once lived headlong; whereas she, if she can be said to exist at all, is composed only of what I remember. I have the better view—I can see her clearly, most of the time. But even if she knew enough to look, she can’t see me at all. (Part V, p.239)
When Iris’s narration on the intrigue of Laura’s death and the money-ridden, deplorable Griffen family gives way to conversations between two anonymous lovers collaborating on a sci-fi novel, we assume that we are reading the genesis of Laura’s tale. The lurid fantasy about Sakiel-Norn and the assassination of its king constitute to a novel-within-a-novel.
It was only three weeks after this that Amiee fell down the stairs. I mourned her, of course. She was my daughter. But I have to admit I mourned the self she’d been at a much earlier age. I mourned what she could have become; I mourned her lost possibilities. More than anything, I mourned my own failures. (Part XI, p.437)
The Blind Assassin retains its sense of mystery to the end, when the interplay of secrets in the sister’ tangled lives are revealed. Iris is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary literature. As she reflects upon the path she has taken to old age, she is oblivious to her own hand in the downward turn. victim to whom fate has not been kind, but whose ills (like those of many victims of circumstance) are largely of her own making, even if her contribution was often one of complacency. Between the different stories the novel itself is breath-taking from the standpoints of both craftsmanship and storytelling. The inner story, after a time, emerges as a surreal metaphor for the lives of the lovers, and, oddly, for the lives of those outside of Laura’s fiction.
521 pp. Anchor Trade Paperback. [Read/
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