The Blind Assassin: Stories within stories within stories

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood science fiction book reviewsThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

A provincial Canadian town in the 1920s doesn’t automatically scream sci-fi to most readers. But that is the beauty of Margaret Atwood’s tenth novel, The Blind Assassin (2000). She weaves a sprawling, post-war tale with pulp science-fiction stories that have readers leaping between Port Ticonderoga and Planet Zycron. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but the story is only made richer by these contrasting worlds.

The novel opens with Iris Chase recalling that her sister drove a car off a bridge. Iris is now eighty-three, and so begins the first of three story threads in The Blind Assassin: her tale of her present-day life as an old woman haunted by her past, and the need she feels to record her history truthfully. Iris then returns to the beginning: her childhood with younger sister Laura Chase, and their life growing up in a large 19th century house named Avilion.

Atwood focuses on the social unrest of Canada at the time, charting the unrest of the Depression and the demise of their father’s button factory as a result. During these turbulent political times, Laura and Iris harbour a suspected communist, Alex Thomas, in the attic of Avilion, and it becomes apparent that there is a strange tension between the three of them. Iris can’t define her own feelings towards Alex, nor can she interpret Laura’s. After Alex tries to kiss her, she wonders whether he has done the same with Laura too.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsInterspersed between these tales of Iris’s life, past and present, are excerpts from Laura Chase’s posthumously published novel: the eponymous Blind Assassin. These excerpts relate stories from Sakiel-Norn, a city on Planet Zycron, where children are forced to weave carpets until they become blind. The stories are initially told by an anonymous narrator to his unnamed lover, but it becomes clearer and clearer that these are people from Iris’ life. And this is the beauty of The Blind Assassin, which begins to read increasingly like a mystery: the ambiguity of the couple having the affair, and the question as to how and why Laura died, are left unanswered until the final chapters, as the novel builds its slow crescendo and the lives of the Chase sisters become more and more entangled.

The contrast between the science fiction interludes and the historical bulk of the tale is one of the novel’s biggest strengths. The political elements of post-war Canada and the civil unrest the country experienced is neatly reflected in the uprising of Sakiel-Norn. The two lovers in the narrator’s tale, the blind assassin and the sacrificial virgin, are reminiscent of the narrator and his lover herself. All she asked for was a story with a happy ending, but what she got was a much more ambiguous tale of strife and adversity. The layers of stories-within-stories all serve to mirror each other.

The book does lose some momentum around two-thirds of the way through, largely due to present-day Iris’s somewhat stilted tales of her day-to-day life. Through her sombre view, the pacing becomes drudged down and sluggish, but the mystery elements of the plot provide enough tension to carry readers through. Also, The Blind Assassin is an Atwood novel, so it goes without saying that the prose is beautifully written. With a Booker prize to its name, you’d be silly not to pick it up.

Published in 2000. The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura?s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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2 comments

  1. This is one of my favorite books.I know I look shallow, but part of the reason was the descriptions of Avilion. And I loved the tales of THE BLIND ASSASSIN (book within the book). Thanks for letting me revisit it, Rachael!

  2. Love this book–Atwood is so damn good with prose and structure. And character. And wit. And, well, she’s just damn good. I’m always happy when older books get fresh reviews to remind people of what’s out there beyond the latest releases!

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