Book Review: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

Winner of the 2000 Man Booker Prize

This book came to my attention while taking Atwood’s online writing course through Masterclass, where she explained the use of different literary devices. The Blind Assassin is an example of a “story within a story”, something you might be familiar with if you’ve read Frankenstein or The Princess Bride. Intrigued by her discussion and other aspects of the book, including that it won the Man Booker Prize in 2000, I bought it. From the beginning, I was hooked and drawn along as the story unfolds, layer upon layer.

“History, as I recall, was never this winsome, and especially not this clean, but the real thing would never sell: most people prefer a past in which nothing smells.” – excerpt from The Blind Assassin

Iris Griffen is a woman at the end of her life; a life that began in a crumbling industrial empire at the end of the Gilded Age, where once her family held wealth, power and prestige. Now, Iris has nothing to her name except a failing heart, regrets, and her secrets. Thus, she decides to write a memoir.

In 1945, when Iris is a young wife to an industrial tycoon with a promising political future, her troubled younger sister, Laura Chase, drives a car over a bridge. Hidden where only Iris can find it, Laura leaves a collection of notebooks. A couple of years later, Iris publishes a book under her sister’s name, posthumously, and the ramifications to Iris’s husband and his family are devastating.

The book, titled A Blind Assassin, becomes a cult hit, breeding speculation and rumor and inspiring young hearts everywhere with its story of forbidden love; a story many suspect to be true. Laura Chase’s ghost lives on in infamy. Iris, though, finds herself cast out of her former life to live the rest of her years under her younger sister’s infamous shadow, haunted by her past at every turn.

Alternating between the present day and the past, A Blind Assassin reveals information bit by bit, sometimes using newspaper articles to fill in time gaps, sometimes using the younger sister’s posthumous novel within a novel, of the same title, to the same effect. Atwood’s prose is lovely, her descriptions exquisite.

“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.” — Excerpt from The Blind Assassin

I enjoyed this book, though I had to patiently get through all of the backstory. When Iris took us down memory lane, she went to back before she was born. When I finally got to the big reveal, it was a bit anti-climatic, as it becomes obvious what the secret is and, yet, I’m left me with more questions than answers at the The End.

The Blind Assassin is a great book club pick if you’re looking to pick apart character’s motives and enjoy novels about the subtle aspects of sisterhood. I’d be interested to know what others think of Iris Griffen and her decisions––or lack of––throughout the novel. I never could quite get behind Iris, wanting to root, instead, for young Laura. Perhaps, this was Atwood’s intention.

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