Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I’ve put off this review for a variety of reasons. 2016 has been bumpy, but it has provided time for reading if not for reviewing.

From the back cover:
The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” They are spoken by Iris Chase Griffen, sole surviving descendent of a once rich and influential Ontario family, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story improvised by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist.

It feels lazy when I don’t provide my own summary, but the back cover here is especially apt and it’s tricky to sum up the book’s unusual structure. The shift “just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story” is jarring, but it’s otherwise a smooth read despite the multiple narratives (Iris’s present, Iris’s past, the fictional The Blind Assassin, and newspaper clippings). Insights and revelations are well-placed so there’s no urge to skip ahead. The only sections I found trying were those featuring old Iris. Her situation can’t be fully appreciated until the novel’s close and if I read the book again, I’ll skim her agonizingly slow trips for coffee and donuts. It’s a bit silly to draw the line at coffee and donuts when so much of this book belongs to small details:

I’ve looked back over what I’ve written so far, and it seems inadequate. Perhaps there is too much frivolity in it, or too many things that might be taken for frivolity. A lot of clothes, the styles and colors outmoded now, shed butterflies’ wings. A lot of dinners, not always very good ones. Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, floating on the river. Such items do no assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. (417)

While Iris’s character eventually becomes clear, I struggle to picture her. Moments of outside perspective show someone different from her self-portrait, but these moments are brief and still biased. The larger issue is that all the other characters are more interesting than Iris and I was left squinting at them through her self-centered fog for a closer look that never came. So often, I wanted to shove her musings aside and dig into the story sans filter, but no such luck—Laura remains a conundrum, Iris’s loathsome husband is detestable from his first scene to his last, and so on. Most agonizing is that Iris [read: Atwood] knows the reader wants more and holds back:

I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.
You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labelled bones. (395)

Hence the lit-student hat. Iris is motivated to minimize her own failings and demands that you read between the lines.

Don’t get too attached to the sci-fi bit at the beginning which seems like it’ll be important. Its conclusion is an afterthought because The Blind Assassin isn’t really about the sci-fi. Each installment spends more time in backrooms and less in Sakiel-Norn. The unnamed lovers are flat and can’t elicit feeling or concern until the reader is able to pin them to their counterparts in Iris’s life. These scenes seem intentionally vague; if Atwood weren’t so invested in the [gimmicky?] structure, these scenes could have contained solid characterization. I expect they’re more interesting on a second read.

This review sounds more negative than it should—
The Blind Assassin is excellent; the layers are complex and interesting, but it can’t fully deliver on a first read (or maybe it can if you don’t read it late at night like I did). The final chapters alter major characterizations and motivations. One revelation in particular would have been more interesting and impactful had it occurred earlier.

Overall: 4.7. Atwood has set the bar high for the year.

Translation: Read it! Then read it again, maybe.

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