Thursday, September 24, 2009

257. The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

History: Published in 2000.
Plot: The novel centres around the protagonist, Iris Chase, and her sister Laura, who committed suicide immediately after the Second World War. Iris, now an old woman, recalls the events and relationships of her childhood, youth and middle age, as well as her unhappy marriage to Richard Griffen, a rival of her industrialist father. Interwoven into the novel is a story within a story, a roman à clef attributed to Laura and published by Iris about Alex Thomas, a politically radical author of pulp science fiction who has an ambiguous relationship with the sisters. That novel itself contains a story within a story, the eponymous Blind Assassin, a science fiction story told by Alex's fictional counterpart to that novel's protagonist, believed to be Laura's fictional counterpart.
The novel takes the form of a gradual revelation, illuminating both Iris' youth and her old age before coming to the pivotal events of her and Laura's lives around the time of the Second World War. As the novel unfolds, and the novel-within-a-novel becomes ever more obviously inspired by real events, it is revealed that Iris, not Laura, is the novel-within-a-novel's true author and protagonist. Though the novel-within-a-novel had long been believed to be inspired by Laura's romance with Alex, it is revealed that the The Blind Assassin was written by Iris based on her extramarital affair with Alex. She later published the work in Laura's name after Laura commits suicide upon learning of their affair. The novel ends with Iris posthumously leaving the truth to be discovered in the form of an unpublished autobiography left to her sole surviving granddaughter.
The book is set in the fictional Ontario town of Port Ticonderoga and in the Toronto of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a work of historical fiction with the major events of Canadian history forming an important backdrop to the novel. Greater verisimilitude is given through a series of newspaper articles that comment on events and on the novel's characters from a distance.
Review: There is a story in The Blind Assassin. It is the story of the young lovers, who desperately need each other even as they are often hostile to each other, and whose destinies are shaped by forces beyond their control. Atwood is not willing to write a book just about them - that kind of a story would be passé. She turns them into a sideshow to her main focus, an extended character study of Iris. The reader sees the young lovers at a distance, through the filter of octogenarian Iris, and it become impossible to be fully drawn into their story. As far as I can tell, Atwood does not want us to be drawn into their story. She seems intentionally to make the writing of Chase's Blind Assassin a bit amateurish and overly sentimental, contrasting it with Iris's subtler, more mature prose. Yet if Chase's Blind Assassin were published separately, it would be a better novel than Atwood's Blind Assassin. If only Margaret Atwood had unleashed all of her considerable talents on the Chase version, without the framework of octogenarian Iris, that could have been a great novel.
Opening Line: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge."
Closing Line: "By the time you read this last page, that - if anywhere - is the only place I will be."
Quotes: “What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves — our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. Now tha I’ve been one myself, I know”
Rating: Okay

No comments:

Post a Comment