The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2000. 521 pp)

Born in Ottawa in the autumn of 1939, Margaret Atwood grew up in Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She attained her B.A. from Victoria College, University of Toronto and her M.A. from Radcliffe College. Atwood has written more than 50 works of poetry, children’s fiction, fiction, and non-fiction. While she is most known for her many novels, her book, Blind Assassin, received highest acclaim winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Currently, she lives with Graeme Gibson in Toronto.

A Narrative in Many Threads

Thus begins Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. A complicated narrative mixing the autobiography of the novel’s protagonist, excerpts from Laura the sister’s novel and newspaper clippings detailing the major events in the lives of each character.

Iris and Laura Chase are daughters of an affluent Canadian family. As we learn from the book’s opening sentence, Laura meets an untimely demise. She has, however, left a novel published posthumously and to critical acclaim. Alive and dead, Iris lives in her younger sister’s shadow.

A Business Marriage

When the Great Depression rears its ugly head, Iris’ father—an amiable and well-intentioned man—soon finds operations at his button factory untenable. A situation far removed from business during the Great War.

“So many buttons are lost in a war, and have to be replaced—whole boxfuls, whole truckloads of buttons at a time. They’re blown to pieces, they sink into the ground, they go up in flames. The same can be said for undergarments. From a financial point of view, the war was a miraculous fire: a huge, alchemical conflagration, the rising smoke of which transformed itself into money” (71).

Hoping bail out his business and align himself politically—not unlike European sovereigns a century earlier—Iris’ father betroths her to Richard Griffin, a greedy capitalist.

Needless to say, this arrangement leaves Iris in a pernicious state.

“What I was experiencing was dread, but it was not dread of Richard as such. It was as if the illuminated dome of the Royal York Hotel had been wrenched off and I was being stared at by a malign presence located somewhere above the black spangled empty surface of the sky. It was God, looking down with his blank, ironic searchlight of an eye. He was observing me; he was observing my predicament; he was observing my failure to believe in him. There was no floor to my room; I was suspended in the air, about to plummet. My fall would be endless—endlessly down” (228).

The Socialist

Despite agreeing to the marriage for the good of the family, Iris continues to have a soft spot for Alex Thomas, a socialist Iris and Laura harbored during the heyday of fear where anyone labeled a communist was a threat to the capitalist status quo.

In fact, Alex is the subject of the novel within the novel, written by Laura and posthumously published. This novel, also titled The Blind Assassin depicts an affair supposedly between Alex and Laura; it also includes a third narrative—a science fiction story featuring a blind assassin.

All-Encompassing Tragedy

On its surface, Atwood’s work, The Blind Assassin, exemplifies the shackled nature of women in the 20th Century. Iris, a strong woman, is a pawn in the business transaction of two business leaders. Yet Atwood succeeds in moving the story to much more complicated places.

In the end, nobody in the story escapes the notion of tragedy. Iris writes,

“I looked back over what I’ve set down 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 colours outmoded now, shed butterflies’ wings. A lot of dinners, not always very good ones. Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, boating on the river. Such items do not assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge” (417-418).

Everyone in the Chase family is subject to tragedy in its many forms. Yes, the theme of female marginalization is apparent throughout, but Atwood does a splendid job of reminding the reader of a person’s power even in the darkest of circumstances.

The Blind Assassin is an enjoyable work and provides another example of Atwood’s stunning linguistic talent. While slow at the beginning when all of the pieces build, the end result is well worth it.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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