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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)

The first thing to know about The Blind Assassin is that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. On the first layer is a story by Iris Chase, the main character, who is reflecting back on her 80 years of life. The second layer is a novel The Blind Assassin written by her sister, Laura Chase, which involves the story of two unnamed lovers. And finally, in The Blind Assassin, there is a third layer as the two lovers tell a science fiction story in the style of the 1930’s pulp.

Certain details about the ultimate fate of characters in the book are revealed to us immediately via newspaper articles (we learn for example in the opening line that Laura kills herself), but we do not learn the full motivations and backstories until the end of the book. All three layers of the story do interact, and confusing as it sounds, they eventually start to make sense.

I found this novel hard to get into at first. When Atwood writes from Iris’ point of view, the prose is very precise in describing every single detail, and you gather the sense that the only purpose it serves is to set up the events that occur towards the end. I skipped even more so over Iris’ descriptions of what she is doing in the present time, because again they are mostly to set up her reflections of her childhood.

However, The Blind Assassin sections kept my interest, as it describes the complicated relationship between the two unnamed lovers and unraveled the story of Sakiel-Norn, a city on the brink of destruction on the far planet of Zycron.

The main narrative spends a long time describing Iris’ family and especially her relationship with her sister, Laura, in the 1930’s and 40’s. Atwood has a good grasp of the values and attitudes of that era. Iris grows up very sheltered in a fairly wealthy family and she spends a lot of time commenting on the class distinctions of the era. When her father’s factory is on the brink of closure, she agrees to a marriage of convenience to a wealthy rival industrialist on the agreement that her father’s factories will be saved. Her new husband reveals his cruelty almost immediately, though, by closing the factories anyhow, then concealing from Iris during their honeymoon that her father had passed away. During the time they are together, she is treated like an errant child, her mail and phone calls screened, her every move criticized and analyzed to ensure it doesn’t cause scandal for her husband. She is lied to constantly by her husband. Throughout this Iris remains passive, though, or so we believe.

Although I found parts of the book boring, I breezed through the last half very quickly. The book is structured almost like a mystery novel, because you begin to realize that there are certain key points that are being left out which won’t be revealed until then end, and I wanted to find out if the book was going to end how I suspected. (It did). While perhaps not her main theme, I found the gender politics of the book very intriguing. While Iris doesn’t try very hard to resist the rules, restrictions and cruelty placed on her by society and her husband, Laura stays fierce and resists in both little and big ways. Over the course of the book, however, we learn that both of their ways of coping lead to tragic results.

The more I think about this book, the more it reminds me of the other Atwood book I reviewed recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. In both novels, the female protagonist is kept powerless and gradually internalizes a feeling of helplessness. In both books, the main characters are given chances to resist and get out of their situations but simply can’t bring themselves to do anything until it is too late.

The science fiction element of the book didn't seem to enhance the plot significantly, but I think some of the best writing in the book was in the science fiction sections. For example this passage from early in the book struck me:

(Describing the supposed destruction of the city of Sakiel-Norn):

“There’s also a story that claims the city wasn’t really destroyed at all. Instead, through a charm known only to the King, the city and its inhabitants were whisked away and replaced by phantoms of themselves, and it was only these phantoms that were burnt and slaughtered. The real city was shrunk very small and placed in a cave beneath the great heap of stones…. The King knows what’s happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don’t know. They don’t know that they’ve become so small. The don’t know that they are supposed to be dead. The don’t even know they’ve been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it’s the sun.”

I find that an interesting reflection on whether or not people really notice what goes on around them.

Is The Blind Assassin worth a read? If you are up for the challenge, read on and enjoy.

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