Dec 14, 2008

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin is the story of two sisters, Iris and Laura Chase, who grow up in Canada in the interwar years. Right at the beginning, we are told that after the end of WW2, when she was only 25, Laura committed suicide by driving her car off a bridge. Iris is telling this story many years after the fact. She is an elderly woman now, and the sections about the past alternate with snippets of her current life. By looking back, she tries to understand – or explain – the events that led to her sister’s death and to other tragedies in her life.

Along with the main plot, we have excerpts of Laura’s posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin. It’s the story of a love affair between a woman and a pulp writer, and inside it we have a third tale, a dystopian story told by the man to his lover. Set in another planet, it's the story of a blind assassin and his love for a mute slave girl. All three stories are connected, and they mirror one another in ways that the reader gradually realizes.

I loved this book so much. I was quite disoriented at first, and it took me almost a hundred pages to begin to make sense of the story, but my endurance definitely paid. And I actually didn’t mind being disoriented all that much, because I had the feeling that’s what I was supposed to be feeling. Besides, Atwood’s writing is such a joy to read that I bet I’d have gladly kept going even if the story hadn’t begun to make sense.

The Blind Assassin is a complex and subtle book, but by complex I don’t mean inaccessible. The several layers and the stories inside the story work so well. And so does the subtlety – you realize things before you know you’ve realized them, and when they are revealed they come not as a surprise, but as a truth that was on the very edge of your perception, that you had been dimly aware of for long but had not yet been able to put a name to.

There’s so much in this novel that remains unsaid, so much that stays between the lines. And yet it’s there all the same. I was actually dumb and gave myself a pretty major spoiler when I was only a few hundred pages into the book, but in the end it didn’t matter. Like I said, this book is not about being surprised. And already knowing this particular thing allowed me to pay attention to all the hints, and to appreciate how the story is structured in a way that I would otherwise only be able to appreciate on a second read. Still, as soon as I finished the book I was seriously tempted to start it again so I could pay closer attention to even more details. And we’re talking of an almost 700 pages book here, so that's saying a lot.

But what is The Blind Assassin about, you ask? I really can’t come up with a simple answer to that. In a way it’s a coming-of-age story, albeit a tragic one. It’s also about the twentieth century, about the two wars and their consequences, about life during the great depression. And it’s also about gender and money and class and how these factors determine the lives of Iris and Laura Chase.

The Blind Assassin raises questions for which there are no simple answers. To which extent did the circumstances determine the lives of these two women? What role did their personalities play? What would we have done in Iris’ place? What could we have done? The fact that the story is told from the perspective of an aged Iris also makes it about memory and regret. In a way, Iris is telling her story to attempt to answer these questions, to atone for what she did (or did not do), to examine her regrets. She actually has a clear audience in mind, but I can’t say more about this without spoilers.

I will say, however, that the fact raises yet more interesting questions about her honesty, about her reliability as a narrator. Iris definitely seems to be at last admitting that she could have done more. But we cannot help but wonder if she knew more than she is saying. Is she being completely honest with herself? Again we go back to the things that remain between the lines.

I’ve gone on for long enough, but let me say again how much I loved the writing. Once again, Margaret Atwood blew me away. The more I read her, the more I love her writing. I think I’ll go with either Alias Grace or The Robber Bridegroom next. Atwood fans, what do you think?

Favourite passages:
Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.

Listen to the clock ticking, I said. It was a pendulum clock – an antique, white and gold china; it had been Grandfather’s; it stood on the mantelpiece in the library. Laura thought I’d said licking. And it was true, the brass pendulum swinging back and forth did look like a tongue, licking the lips of an invisible mouth. Eating up the time.

Some of the best things are done by those with nowhere to turn, by those who don’t have time, by those who truly understand the word helpless. They dispense with the calculations of risk and profit, they take no thought of the future, they’re forced at spearpoint into the present tense. Thrown over a precipice, you fall or else you fly; you clutch at any hope, however unlikely; however – if I may use such an overworked word – miraculous. What we mean by that is, Against all odds.

But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge.

The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.

Other Opinions:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
It's All About Me
Out of the Blue
Trish's Reading Nook
Reading Room
Caribou's Mom
Life and Times of a 'New' New Yorker
The Inside Cover
Just One More Chapter
Bold Blue Adventure
An Adventure in Reading
Back to Books
Belle of the Books
Farm Lane Books
Care's Online Bookclub
Andrea's Book Nook

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. This book sounds great! Thanks for the review!

  2. After I read and liked The Handmaid's Tale, I bought this book at a library sale. I'm really looking forward to reading it after your review!

  3. I had hoped to read this one this year but it wasn't meant to be. Maybe next year. I am glad you enjoyed it so much. My husband was quite fond of it too--one of the reasons I figured this would be a good place to start in reading Atwood's novels.

  4. I'm crazy about Margaret Atwood, too. My favorites are Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride, but I was also quite interested in Oryx and Crake. The Blind Assassin was good, but it doesn't stand out in my mind as clearly as those I mentioned. Have you read The Robber Bride? It's one of my all time favorite books. Ever.

  5. The Blind Assassin is one of my favorite Atwood novels (the others being The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace, so you know which of your choices gets my vote!) and you did a great job describing the way I felt when I first read it. I've been reading it again, and knowing the twist really gives you a different perspective on the whole story.

  6. I read this one back when it was new, and I enjoyed it a lot, although I must confess I don't remember the details very well. I may have too see if the library has it on audio, because I would like to refresh my memory.

    My favorite Atwoods are The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye. For some reason, Alias Grace didn't do much for me at all--well, I liked the first half, but then it just fizzled.

  7. I hate to admit this, but I've never read any of Margaret Atwood's work. I've read so much about The Handmaid's Tale that I have it on my wish list. Sounds like this belongs on my wish list too.

  8. You know, I had to read The Blind Assassin twice, but on the second reading I enjoyed it so much more. :)
    I've read both of those, but Alias Grace more recently; so I'd go for that. Or Oryx and Crake, if you haven't read that one. :)

  9. Beautiful review. The passages you chose are just wonderful examples of Atwood's prose. I still have yet to read this one, along with Atwood's other works. Hopefully, this one will be my read for next year. Glad you enjoyed it! :]

  10. I started this book, was really enjoying it, and than for whatever reason never finished it! Story of my reading career... Just imagine how books I would read if I finished everything I started...

  11. sounds good, I havent read Atwood.
    this definitely sounds like a worthwhile read, great review ;)
    She sounds like a great writer.

  12. Michellekea, you're welcome :)

    Laura, what a great find! Enjoy it!

    Literary Feline: Though this is only my fourth Atwood, I do think it would be a great starting point. Hope you enjoy it!

    Bellezza: Thank you so much for the recommendation! I really want to read The Robber Bride, especially since I read her essay on the Mirror, Mirror on the Wall anthology. In it she explains how the novel was partially inspired by the Grimms' The Robber Bridegroom fairy tale. How can I resist reading it?

    Jessi: I imagine this to be one of those books that grows and grows on you with each re-read.

    Teresa: I've heard great things about Cat's Eye as well. Thanks for the suggestion!

    bermudaonion: I'm pretty much new to her too, and I read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time last summer. It's never too late!

    Maree: Like I was telling Jessi, I bet I will too. And no, I haven't, but it's another one I've heard very good things about.

    Orchidus: Thank you! Isn't her writing breathtaking?

    Kailana: lol, you do mention that a lot :P I'm actually a compulsive finisher, which can be bad too because it makes me force myself through meh books. I've been getting better at putting them aside in recent years, but it's still hard for me.

    Naida: do read her! She really is great.

  13. I understand how you feel about the book taking 100 pages to make sense... I feel like Atwood's books are more work than a typical "leisure" read, but I find that the payoff is much bigger in her books. This one was so many things... I suspected a few of the big surprises, but that didn't really rob them of their power, because I feel like she kind of wants you to guess what's going to happen.

    Although it doesn't completely fit the "gothic" category, I still think that this book is a great gothic read. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

  14. So much to comment on!! I loved this book as well for many of the same reasons. Atwood is such a crafty writer and I can't believe I've let so much time pass since I read her last (I try to space out my favorite authors...I guess so I savor them longer??).

    I'm curious to know how you spoiled this one for yourself. I remember having an "aha" moment but then talking myself out of it, having another "aha" moment--again deciding I was wrong to find out at the very end I was right. And like you, it didn't take anything away from the book or story and made me want to pick it right up again (The Thirteenth Tale did the same for me...although that ending was a complete surprise).

    Interesting thoughts about Iris. I wondered at times how reliable she was as well, but really I didn't enjoy her storyline as much. I think mostly because it was sad at how she was aging and how useless she felt. Loved the story of the love affair, though!

    I haven't read Alias Grace, but I think that will be my next (I also have Oryx and Crake on the shelf). I read The Robber Bride earlier this year and didn't like it quite as much--although it's tough when you compare anything to this and The Handmaid's Tale. Cat's Eye is really interesting as well--can't remember if you've read that one?

    Ok, done babbling. :) Glad you loved this one!!

  15. Read Alias Grace! It is FAN TAS TIC. Probably the most subtle of the Atwood I've read, and the most delicious.

  16. Oh, I've this book in my pile, along with Oryx and Crake. I think one reason I've been putting off reading the first is because of the thickness, hehe... But I've heard a lot of good reviews about it so I'm hoping I'd get to it soon.

  17. I think this one sounds neat. Love the cover and the quote about time.

  18. Hi Nymeth, this is another book I kept putting off buying. I think you've just done it for me again. Time to get it! Thanks for the wonderful review!

  19. My goal is to read this in January. So... I didn't read your review! I will go add it to my list of reviews to read AFTER, if that's OK?

  20. Another great review! I have not read too much by Atwood, but her style of writing is very beautiful. Another book to look up!

  21. Amazing review! I really need to read this, I loved how you pointed out all the layers and interweaving stories - I've always loved that in a book.

  22. I loved it too and also didn't mind being disoriented. Atwood is such an amazing writer.

  23. I also enjoyed this book. I like everything I read by Atwood. My favorites are The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. I enjoyed Alias Grace, but not as much as The Blind Assassin or the others I listed. Next on my reading list are Cat's Eye and The Edible Woman.

  24. I loved The Blind Assassin when I read it a few years ago. Your post has made me want to read it again. Along with this book, my favourites are Cat's Eye and Alias Grace.

  25. I love Margaret Atwood, but I haven't read this one, yet. Great review!

  26. Kim: That's true, her books do demand a lot of attention...but like you said, the payoff really is big. I also agree that she wants us to guess...there are a lot of hints throughout the book.

    Trish: I spoiled it for myself by being really stupid :P I was only a few chapters into it and really confused, and though I didn't mind being confused I wanted to figure out who the main narrator was. So I googled it, and ended up reading more about Iris than I wanted to know. But it really didn't make the book any less enjoyable for me. I liked paying attention to all the hints. This and The Handmaid's Tale do seem hard to top, but I'm still looking forward to reading all of those.

    Christine: I love me some subtlety. I will read it!

    Melody: I actually did the same. This had been on my challenge lists since the beginning of the year, and I kept putting it off until now. But it's so worth it! And after the first hundred pages, it doesn't feel half as long as it is.

    Ladytink: It's a great one, isn't it?

    Alice, I really hope you enjoy it!

    Care: Totally okay! I really look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

    Mariel: It really is. It's so matter-of-fact, almost...contained. And yet it says so much.

    Joanne: I love that too, especially when it's done as well as it is in this book.

    Joanna: agreed!

    Shannon: Thanks for the recommendations. I kind of want to kick myself for passing Oryx and Crake when I saw it at a library sale last year.

    Booksplease: Cat's Eye is another one that sounds great. It will take me a while, but I want to read them all.

    Lisa: If you love the rest of her stuff then you'll love this too!

  27. I enjoyed both but if I had to choose right now I would go with The Robber Bride

  28. Atwood is one of my favorite writers and yet I'm a bit ashamed I've yet to read this one :(

    Lovely review as always. I'll go back and read this again once I finally have the courage to pick up The Blind Assassin, hopefully by next year :)

  29. Oh my goodness, but your review is really tempting me! As your incredible reviews always do. :)
    Truly, this does sound fantastic, but for whatever reason, Atwood scares me. And it sounds like this one definitely needs to wait until life is at a stage when I can devote more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time to reading...I think I would be totally lost and frustrated. But oh man, it really does sound good...

  30. I've heard so many various and conflicting opinions about this book that I've decided I have to read it. A book that elicits so much negative and positive responses really gets me curious.
    I read the Handmaid's Tale years and years ago. I think I was too young to appreciate it at the time though.

  31. Brideofthebookgod, thanks for your thoughts!

    Lightheaded: Nothing to be ashamed of, as it's never too late. But yeah, more and more I understand why she's a favourite of yours, and I'm starting to think she could become a favourite of mine.

    Debi: Don't be scared of her, really! I agree that her books do demand concentration, so it's good to have some time to devote to them. But they're actually accessible and really, really rewarding.

    Jeanette: That might have happened to me too if I'd reader it when younger.

  32. I've read and enjoyed a couple of Atwood novels, but I haven't yet read this one. After reading your review, I hope to get to it soon.

    I had an experience recently where it took me over 100 pages to really get into a book, and you're right, persistence can pay off big time. I ended up really enjoying the book.

    Alias Grace sounds good. That's in my TBR pile.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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