Review: The Blind Assassin

the_blind_assassin_coverI’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. Tech woes swallowed my drafted reviews (should have used WordPress for them…), but I’ve convinced myself not to revert to procrastination in response. Most surprisingly, The Blind Assassin doesn’t actually kick off my Mt. TBR Challenge for the year as I read more than 50% of it in 2015 (there’s that lack of foresight again). Books received for my birthday hopped the queue, but I have read 5/75 for the challenge so far (more on this later).

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 I quickly became acquainted with the book’s many jumps. Despite its multiple narratives (Iris’ present, Iris’ past, the fictional The Blind Assassin, fun with sci-fi, and newspaper clippings), Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is a smooth read. 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 given how 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’ 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 everyone else is 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 Iris’ musings aside and dig into the story sans filter, but alas. Laura remains a conundrum; Richard, Iris’ loathsome husband, is detestable from his first scene to his last; the introduction of Richard’s vile sister promises an interesting power struggle with Iris, but this fizzles out. 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 writing for a specific audience and motivated to minimize her own failings. She demands that you read between the lines.

As for the sci-fi bit which, at the beginning, seems like it will be important: don’t get too attached. 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’ life. These scenes seem intentionally vague, and 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.

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

Possible Spoilers
(I’m going to phrase this obliquely so I don’t ruin anything if you haven’t already read The Blind Assassin. If you’d rather remain pure, skip this section.)

It’s obvious who the unnamed lovers are and the clues are well placed, BUT I assumed a different motivation behind writing The Blind Assassin which changed the way I read it. The big “reveal” made me reconfigure a few characters in my head. In a less detailed work, a mental swap at the end isn’t hard to pull off, but it’s hard to quickly shift Atwood’s heavy creations.

I’d heard there was a “twist” ending prior to reading, so I was unwilling to push all in with my assumptions and likely missed good character development as a result. I can’t help but feel the flatness of the supporting cast is largely caused by the structure which requires Iris/Atwood to slow-play crucial details. When the structure confuses the story, it’s hard to not feel it’s a touch gimmicky. That said, Atwood writes this book/story as well as it can possibly be written.

/spoilers

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

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

 

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