Monday, March 24, 2008

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Sometimes, when reading a big book, one gets the feeling that the author set out to achieve size, as if that in itself might suggest certain adjectives from a reader or reviewer – weighty, significant, deep, serious, complex, extensive, perhaps. Sometimes – rarely, in fact – one reads a big book and becomes lost in its size, lost in the sense that one ceases to notice the hundreds passing by, as the work creates its own time, defines its own experience, shares its own world. Even then, reaching the end can often be merely trite, just a running out of steam, the process thoroughly engaging, the product, however, something of a let down. Rarely, very rarely indeed, one reads a big book that actually needs its size, justifies itself, continues to surprise as well as enchant and then, finally, stuns. Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin is such a book, a giant in every sense, a masterpiece beyond question. 

Blind Assassin was awarded the Booker Prize in 2000 and charts intersecting histories of two well-to-do Canadian families, Chase and Griffen. The two Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, are quite different people. Born into the relative opulence of a Canadian manufacturing family, they have a private education of sorts, experienced throughout and yet alongside something vaguely like a childhood. Various aspects of twentieth century history impinge upon their lives and eventually force their family to reassess its status. Economic downturn, war and family tragedy take their toll on the father, who becomes less able to manage either his own life or his business. Something has to give. Ways of coping must be found. 

Iris, the elder sister, is the first person narrator of about half of the book, the other half being devoted to a book within a book, a novel in the name of Laura, the younger sister. This novel, entitled The Blind Assassin, is an eclectic mix of experience, sex, fantasy and politics. It has made a name for Laura and retains a significant cult following many years after its publication. Laura, herself, died in a car accident. She drove off a bridge into a ravine. The car belonged to Iris. 

There was never any real explanation for the event. Iris, meanwhile, has been married off to an older man, a Griffen, who seems to treat her like so much chattel. But then he is an industrialist with the wherewithal, not to mention capital, to assist the bride’s family business in its time of need. Iris, therefore, experiences the Canadian equivalent of an arranged marriage. 

Perhaps the word marriage is a little overstated. The partnership could be better described as a merger, or a union, if that were not a dirty word because of its political connotation. And so the octogenarian Iris, clearly anticipating the end of her days, embarks upon a cathartic outpouring of personal and family history in the hope that an estranged granddaughter might just understand a little about other peoples’ motives. 

The book takes us through Canada and north America, across to Europe, via an imagined universe, to political commitment, direct action and its inevitable reaction. Iris needs to write it all down. And so she works her story out, constructing it, perhaps reconstructing it, maybe inventing it from memory and relived experience against a backdrop of contemporary Canada and her own failing health. Her vulnerability, in the end, is our debt, our penance, perhaps. She is a wise old woman with much to hide, but her acerbic wit is undiminished by age, her observations of others stunningly perspicacious. It is not often that a novel, a mere flight of another’s fancy, achieves the subtle, stunning and surely enduring power of the Blind Assassin. 

View this book on amazon The Blind Assassin

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