The Blind Assassin


Margaret Atwood


Fiction / Literature


Date Reviewed:

Febuary 28, 2006

read Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood, and I was bored senseless. But I picked this book up because a friend said it was a pretty good read. And it is! This is much better than Cat's Eye, the writing is terrific. It isn't beautiful prose in the sense that Mark Helprin writes beautifully, but this is filled with excellent imagery and word craft. I will offer a long quote that impressed me - if you don't like this style, the Blind Assassin is not your cup of tea .

The wars break out and die down, but then there's a flareup elsewhere. Houses cracked open like eggs, their contents torched or stolen or stomped vindictively underfoot; refuges strafed from airplanes. In a million cellars the bewildered royal family faces the firing squad; the gems sewn into their corsets will not save them. Herod's troops patrol a thousand streets; just next door, Napoleon makes off with the silverware. In the wake of the invasion, any invasion, the ditches fill up with raped women. To be fair, raped men as well. Raped children, raped dogs and cats. Things can get out of control.

But not here; not in this gentle, tedious backwater; not in Port Ticonderoga, despite a druggie or two in the parks, despite the occasional break-in, despite the occasional body found floating around in the eddies. We hunker down here, drinking our bedtime snacks, peering at the world as if through a secret window, and when we've had enough of it we turn it off. So much for the twentieth century, we say, as we make our way upstairs. But there's a far off roaring, like a tidal wave racing ashore. Here comes the twenty-first century, sweeping overhead like a spaceship filled with ruthless lizard-eyed aliens or a metal petrodactyl. Sooner or later it will sniff us out, it will tear the roofs off of our flimsy burrows with its iron claws, and then we will be just as naked and shivering and starving and diseased and hopeless as the rest.

Excuse this digression. At my age you indulge in these apocalyptic visions. You say, the end of the world is at hand. You lie to yourself - I'm glad I won't be around to see it - when in fact you would like nothing better, as long as you can watch it through the secret little window, as long as you won't be involved.

But why bother about the end of the world? It's the end of the world every day, for someone. Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes, you drown.

The Blind Assassin is a manuscript penned by Iris Chase when she is an old woman. It is the story of her life, and that of her famous sister, Laura Chase - who wrote one best-selling inspirational novel before committing suicide. The novel starts with Laura deliberately driving her car off of a bridge, and then the entire rest of the book, starting from childhood, gets us back up to the point of the suicide, explaining the background events that led to Laura's deliberate death.

The title The Blind Assassin is taken from one of the stories that two nameless lovers share in chapters interspersed throughout the book. They tell science-fiction fantasy stories to amuse themselves, but they are true to the era - which means they read much like science fiction written in the 1930s and 1940s, and so it isn't very good. It seems vintage 1940s, but no one reads that old material any more. It isn't too hard to figure out who the two nameless lovers are. Nor are the revelations at the end of the novel all that astounding - maybe I have read too much, and there is nothing that sounds too villainous or shocking in print any more.

The real story here is the life of Iris and Laura. Their mom dies when they are quite young, so they are left to be raised by their father, a wealthy business man who owns a button factory in Ticonderoga, Canada. Unfortunately, their father is a WW1 veteran who suffered terribly in the war. His two brother were killed, and he is maimed in body and soul - not the ideal man to raise two young daughters on his own. When the depression comes, the father is too much of an idealist to simply layoff all of "his" men, and so ruin is sure to follow. The good times don't last, and the fate of Iris and Laura continues to ratchet downward as they grow older. Ultimately, of course, it ends in the disaster of Laura's suicide.

The reason I like this book is the writing. It sounds authentic, like the narrator truly IS an 80 year old woman thinking back on her life (the author photo on the back suggests that Ms Atwood is still quite a few years short of 80). Plus, it is full of admirable paragraphs, like the lengthy one I quoted above. This is a good book, a fine example of modern literature!