Not long ago I finished Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize novel The Blind Assassin. I particularly enjoyed Atwood’s writing in The Handmaid’s Tale, so I was interested to read more of her work. Similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, this novel dabbles on the edges of science fiction. The story is complex, but unlike other complex stories I thought this one was easy to follow through all of its various story lines and characters. The story traces four story lines – the current day life of an elderly woman, Iris, side by side with her memoirs of growing up in depression era industrial town Canada. We learn early in the novel that Iris’s sister, Laura, was a famous authoress and interspersed between chapters of Iris’s memoirs are chapters of Laura’s book, entitled The Blind Assassin. To further complicate matters, one of the main characters in Laura’s book is a storyteller, and subsequently spends romantic evenings with his girlfriend telling her a story. It is this story within a novel within a novel that actually features a blind assassin as a character.
I think the reason these multiple story lines fit so neatly together is because they all seem to be telling the same story. The characters in each story line are images of one another, and you eventually get the sense that Laura’s novel, and the story within it, are based in the facts of Laura and Iris’s growing up, young adulthood, and even Iris’s married life.
I can’t exactly put my finger on why I liked this book. Perhaps because of the intricate way the pieces fit together. Perhaps because it is so unlike other novels I’ve read. Perhaps because the feelings of being trapped are familiar to all of us in one way or another. Whatever it may be, I truly enjoyed this book. I didn’t enjoy it in a “read it as fast as you can because you can’t put it down” sort of way. Instead, it felt a bit like mulling over a truly good cup of coffee. You don’t want to chug it all down simply for the benefit of the caffeine. You want to sip it, enjoying the flavor and the way it warms you down to your toes.
I thought about this book often over the few weeks it took me to read it. I thought about the elderly Iris’s description of the humbling and humiliating facts of growing old, vividly described in a way I hadn’t considered previously. I thought about Iris’s reflections on being a young adult in the Depression, which reminded me starkly of some of my grandmother’s recollections, although Iris’s family was considerably better off than my grandmother’s family was. I thought about the political statements about communism and socialism that come out most vividly in Laura’s fictional storyteller’s words about an imaginary culture on an imaginary planet.
So many of the themes of the novel seem so relevant today – looking at the Depression, the types of ideologies that seem to bubble up around difficult economic times, hints of class warfare and suggestions of the greed of the wealthy. I think what I like best is that Atwood, using Iris’s voice, remains relatively neutral on these issues. She mentions them, discusses them, shares how other characters feel about them – but never really comes out on one side or the other. Its refreshing to read when so many authors want to use their characters to preach from a soapbox.
I also like the twist at the end. It isn’t like a lot of pop fiction today where the twist sort of jumps out of a closet and scares you. Its more a slowly dawning realization that starts as a questioning “I wonder…” and ends with an “I KNEW IT!”
Would I recommend this book? I would, especially if you enjoy taking your time chewing a bit through some thought-provoking things. If you’re particularly cautious about what you read, be forewarned that there is subtle talk of an illicit relationship, but there is nothing graphic. Also, babyloss mommas please be aware that one of the characters looses a child and there is some graphic description there. This may be upsetting to some of you; it was to me. If you can work past that brief episode, the rest of the novel is well worth reading.
What are you reading this weekend?