The Blind Assassin:


Book Club Selection for February 2020- The Blind Assassin

by Margaret Atwood

In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood weaves together strands of gothic suspense, romance, and science fiction into one utterly spellbinding narrative. The novel begins with the mysterious death—a possible suicide—of a young woman named Laura Chase in 1945. Decades later, Laura’s sister Iris recounts her memories of their childhood, and of the dramatic deaths that have punctuated their wealthy, eccentric family’s history. Intertwined with Iris’s account are chapters from the scandalous novel that made Laura famous, in which two illicit lovers amuse each other by spinning a tale of a blind killer on a distant planet. These richly layered stories-within-stories gradually illuminate the secrets that have long haunted the Chase family, coming together in a brilliant and astonishing final twist.

The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris Chase Griffen, initially seems a little cold-blooded about this death in the family. But as Margaret Atwood's most ambitious work unfolds--a tricky process, in fact, with several nested narratives and even an entire novel-within-a-novel--we're reminded of just how complicated the familial game of hide-and-seek can be:

What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge, then hung suspended in the afternoon sunlight, glinting like a dragonfly, for that one instant of held breath before the plummet? Of Alex, of Richard, of bad faith, of our father and his wreckage; of God, perhaps, and her fatal, triangular bargain.

Meanwhile, Atwood immediately launches into an excerpt from Laura Chase's novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. In this double-decker concoction, a wealthy woman dabbles in blue-collar passion, even as her lover regales her with a series of science-fictional parables. Complicated? You bet. But the author puts all this variegation to good use, taking expert measure of our capacity for self-delusion and complicity, not to mention desolation. Almost everybody in her sprawling narrative manages to--or prefers to--overlook what's in plain sight. And memory isn't much of a salve either, as Iris points out: "Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I've found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them." Yet Atwood never succumbs to postmodern cynicism, or modish contempt for her characters. On the contrary, she's capable of great tenderness, and as we immerse ourselves in Iris's spliced-in memoir, it's clear that this buttoned-up socialite has been anything but blind to the chaos surrounding her. --Darya Silver

"The first great novel of the new millennium."

"Absorbing... expertly rendered... Virtuosic storytelling [is] on display."
--The New York Times

"Brilliant... Opulent... Atwood is a poet.... as well as a contriver of fiction, and scarcely a sentence of her quick, dry yet avid prose fails to do useful work, adding to a picture that becomes enormous."
--John Updike, The New Yorker

"Chilling... Lyrical... [Atwood's] most ambitious work to date."
--The Boston Globe

"Hauntingly powerful.... A novel of luminous prose, scalpel-precise insights and fierce characters... Atwood's new work is so assured, so elegant and so incandescently intelligent, she casts her contemporaries in the shade."
--The Atlanta Journal--Constitution

"Grand storytelling on a grand scale... Sheerly enjoyable."
--The Washington Post Book World

"Bewitching... A killer novel.... Atwood's crisp wit and steely realism are reminiscent of Edith Wharton... A wonderfully complex narrative."
--The Christian Science Monitor

"A tour de force."
--Chicago Tribune

About the Author:

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in over forty countries, is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid's Tale, now a successful MGM-Hulu television series currently preparing its fourth season, her novels include Cat's Eye, shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize; The Penelopiad; The Heart Goes Last; Hag-seed; and The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, published in September, 2019. She lives in Toronto some of the time.d's new work is so assured, so elegant and so incandescently intelligent, she casts her contemporaries in the shade."
--The Atlanta Journal--Constitution

"Grand storytelling on a grand scale... Sheerly enjoyable."
--The Washington Post Book World

"Bewitching... A killer novel.... Atwood's crisp wit and steely realism are reminiscent of Edith Wharton... A wonderfully complex narrative."
--The Christian Science Monitor

"A tour de force."
--Chicago Tribune

CG Book Club Review:

The Blind Assassin- Review

I am not going to lie. I re-started this book twice before I got into it.

It is so hard to express what exactly this book is about - any synopsis does not do it justice and explains nothing. This review will probably be as misleading and pointless as all others. The Blind Assassin is a puzzle of a story, with multiple tales within tales.

The protagonist is Iris Chase Griffen. She is embarking on a return journey to her past from an isolated outpost of the present. She is determined to write down the story of her life before her failing heart finally gets the better of her, hoping that this process of setting the story straight might lead to reconciliation with her estranged granddaughter Sabrina. Her account is interspersed with chapters from her sister Laura's novel published posthumously in the 1940s after Laura committed suicide by driving off a bridge. The transistions between time periods are not clear and can cause confusion.

The book within a book did more than make Laura famous; it made her a martyr. As Iris, now in her 80s, hobbles fretfully around the small town in which the sisters grew up, she still comes across admirers laying flowers on Laura's grave and finds their impassioned graffiti on washroom walls.

The book within the book's popularity does not wholly rest on the premature death of its author, nor on the whiff of scandal that attaches to the family (the Chase daughters were the surviving remnants of a wealthy, industrial line, and Iris, at the time of its publication, was married to a prominent businessman and would-be politician). From the fragments we are given, we begin to understand that it is also a compelling love story, in which the participants in a clandestine affair scurry from park bench to a squalid borrowed room, forever fleeing unnamed pursuers. She, we infer, is a prisoner of some kind of domestic regime, while he is under threat of imminent arrest following a botched strike action. During their meetings, they comfort one another with escape into the imagined world of the planet Zycron, where the city of Sakiel-Norn teeters on the brink of disaster. In one strand of their shared story, a blind assassin - one of the city's children, made sightless through enforced labour sewing carpets - rescues a sacrificial virgin who has had her tongue cut out.

At times there are too many threads for Atwood to weave into the carpet, as she muses on themes of authorship and confession, the simultaneous empowerment and impotence of secret storytelling, and the hopeless position of women whose fates, through blood, money or love, are tied to men.

Where Atwood succeeds is in the evocation of childhood, the territory that she mined so productively and memorably in Cat's Eye . Here it is invested with all the drama and intensity of a gothic horror story, as we spy on Iris and Laura in Avilion, their monstrous Victorian castle of a home. There, saintly mother slips away in childbirth, war-wrecked father shuts himself up in the turrets with the whisky bottle, and a succession of ill-fated tutors attempt in vain to drum Tennyson and calculus into their unruly charges.

Atwood is terrific on the circumstances that cause the sisters to wander down different but equally doomed paths; pragmatic Iris offering herself up to a forced marriage in mute, furious self- sacrifice, wayward Laura engaged in "loony metaphysics", driving bargains with God to stave off further loss and destruction. Their creator, knowing well the love, hatred and indifference of family bonds, draws a relationship that goes deeper than sibling rivalry and into the far more treacherous waters of mutual dependence.

But as the present-day Iris (stumbling around her ramshackle cottage and fending off the attentions of do-gooders) continues with her tale, it mutates into all-out melodrama, complete with a pair of grotesque villains - emissaries from the world outside Avilion - who infiltrate the family and appropriate the sisters with all the ease of asset-strippers closing down a factory. Iris's story now comes to resemble something from the world of Dynasty or the Kennedys, with plutocrats found dead aboard yachts, privileged heiresses discovered with their necks broken in grimy houses, snaffled telegrams, renegade political activists and wrongful inheritances. For the reader, this uncontrollable proliferation of events makes for urgent, fast-paced narrative; but it also distracts and detracts from the novel's more subtle themes.

Atwood has always sought to collapse and subvert different genres, so it isn't surprising that her family saga should encompass pulp sci-fi, clue-strewn detective novel, newspaper reportage and tragic confessional romance. The ingenuity of its chameleon narrative, and Atwood's assured handling of atmosphere, constitute an impressive attempt to cover an awful lot of ground - not least the whirlwind of social and political change that makes the sisters' rarefied childhood a dangerous anachronism - at the same time as exploring the hidden history of one family. The Blind Assassin also contains a sophisticated meditation on the uses and perils of fiction: this ushers in a daring ambiguity about the nature of authorship that ups the novel's ante and all but breaks the bank. What we have, at the end, is a mystery story whose chief character is absent. If Atwood hasn't quite managed to pull off this vanishing act, it is largely because her particular brand of fictional magic- making relies on stealth and invisibility; and in this novel we get a little too close to seeing how the trick is performed.

Ken W. Good

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