Article published on February 23, 2015.
The best book of the century so far? Surely it has to be something by
Margaret Atwood, an author with a brain the size of her native Canada?
Not one of her later, ecological works perhaps (I find the MaddAddam
trilogy too expository), but one from her rich ‘middle period’: The
Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin …? Fortunately, the
choice is made easier for me as only the last was published in the
present century (September 2000).
So, I’ve been given an excuse, if one were needed, for reading this compelling,
multi-layered novel for the umpteenth time. With every fresh read, I spot
something new: a hint or a clue that wasn’t there before; a turn of phrase to savour.
On the surface,The Blind Assassin is the story of pragmatic Iris and unworldly Laura, two sisters from a once prosperous industrial family in a small town near Toronto. Growing up in the thirties, motherless and virtually fatherless, they are easy prey for the Griffen siblings: he a politically ambitious plutocrat, she a poisonous socialite. Add the catalyst of charismatic union activist-on-the-run Alex Thomas and it’s a volatile mix.
But like Russian matryoshka dolls, one story nests within another. So in addition to a family saga, there are excerpts from a melancholy romance, ‘The Blind Assassin by Laura Chase’. The star-crossed lovers, meeting in dingy rooms, improvise another narrative: a sci-fi/fantasy story of a young blind boy on the planet Zycron sent to assassinate a sacrificial victim, with whom he falls in love instead. The whole is framed by Iris’s own story as, lonely and regretful, she contemplates her pact with the devil in a series of flashbacks and only over time reveals what she has omitted to tell us earlier.
Along the way, clippings from the local press provide a superficial running commentary on events. Extracts from fan mail, and even washroom graffiti, show the Sylvia Plath-like homage paid to ‘The Blind Assassin’, published by Iris after Laura’s death.
If I’ve made this sound overly complicated, it’s not. The novel is a rich read, with the kaleidoscopic transition between the different forms made seamless by the strength of the writing.
Read it first for the story, despite the plot spoiler opening: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Read it next for the clues you missed first time around. Then read it for the language, which hits the spot every time (an artist’s defiantly quirky outfit is described as “a raised fist”).
Finally, read it again and this time ask yourself: “Who is the blind assassin?”
Margaret Cain, Berkshire
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood was published in hbk by Bloomsbury in 2000
The Independent Bath Literature Festival – 20 years old!