Title: The Blind Assassin
Rating: 5 Stars
The book is centered around two sisters, Laura and Iris Chase. It starts with Laura’s death immediately after the end of WWII when she drives off a bridge using Laura’s car. It appears to be suicide but since they are members of a wealthy, powerful family, the case is closed as an accident.
From that start, the book both spirals forward and backward. Iris, now in her 80’s and in failing health, is looking back upon her life, and in so doing, exposes several family secrets.
The novel is actually, depending upon how you count, two or three novels in one. The two main plots alternate chapters.
In one set, you have Iris looking back on her life. She comes from a moderately wealthy family in a relatively small town in Canada. Her grandfather starts up a successful button factory and her grandmother has dreams of creating a local high society. During WWI, the demand for buttons explode and they become even wealthier. Laura’s father has an artistic bent but goes off to WWI and comes back injured and emotionally shattered. Her grandfather soon dies and her father somewhat reluctantly takes on the duties of running the button factory.
The depression hits the button factory hard. Her father desperately tries to save the factory but often succumbs to drunken despair. As a last resort, he merges into a partnership with a more successful businessman named Richard Griffin, who as part of the condition of the merger demands that Laura becomes his wife. She marries him and he proceeds to treat her brutally.
During all of this time, Laura, the younger sister, is dreamily living her life, somewhat in a world of unreality. Upon the death of their father, Richard assumes guardianship over her. She rebels against him and is sent off to private schools, where she gets expelled for her behavior. Ultimately she breaks down and is sent to a sanatorium.
Interspersed with this plot is another story of a young man and a young woman. The two are in love. The young man is some kind of criminal that is constantly on the run. The young woman can only sneak away to see him rarely. They meet furtively in seedy hotels and vacant rooms. As part of their romance, the man spins a tale to the woman of a sci-fi fantasy of alien cultures, their customs, and a love story between a trained, blind assassin and a mute girl that is scheduled to be ritually sacrificed. As the man spins his tale, it becomes clear how dire and hopeless the situation is between the young man and the young woman.
The plot was engaging. What was most interesting to me was the sheer craftsmanship of the work.
Atwood effortlessly weaves in Iris’ memoirs, a science fiction fantasy, a fictionalized version of the furtive doomed love story, and supporting newspaper clippings in a seamless manner.
Like a slow drip of a faucet, the truth is revealed regarding the horrors of Iris’ marriage and of her in laws, the true state of Laura’s mental health, the fate of the young man, and the truth of the relationship between the young man and the young woman.
The fact there was all of this structural underpinnings to the story but I was able to just glide along with the story without the framework intruding upon it is a testament to the skill in which it was written. Even though the story engaged and moved me, it was the sheer mastery of the literary form that Atwood demonstrated that left me dazzled at her brilliance.