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The Blind Assassin Sneaks Up On You

February 14th, 2009 (05:37 pm)
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My Book Club read Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin this month. The book is not an easy one; I know people who have felt bogged down in its complexity. But I love this book and consider it among Atwood's best. With her body of work, that's saying a lot.

The many-layered novel is told through the character Iris, an octogenarian living in the small town in Ontario where she grew up. A second layer is Iris's past. Decades earlier, her sister Laura drove Iris's car off a bridge and died, probably a suicide. Everything about Iris is tied up with the memory of her younger sister. Iris loved her sister completely, but at the same time she resented her, envied her, and was often confused by and exasperated with her. Where Iris was practical, Laura was dreamy. Where Iris acted as society expected, Laura acted as her heart demanded. Where Iris tried to fit in, Laura delighted in defying rules and confounding people. After her death, Laura gained fame - and notoriety - as the author of a novel called The Blind Assassin, which scandalized the sisters' social circle with its storyline about a married upper-class woman who has a steamy, long-term affair with a fugitive.

Scenes from the novel, interspersed throughout the book, make up another layer of the narrative. And within those scenes nests yet another plotline: the storylines of the pulp-era science-fiction works that the fictional fugitive is writing, which he recounts to his married lover during their trysts. Atwood doesn't hit you over the head with the parallels among the science-fictional world, the scenes from the Blind Assassin novel-within-the-novel, and the "real" world of Iris and Laura's lives. But the parallels are there, and this is the kind of book that makes you want to stop and think to discover the connections.

The story of Iris's past is told mostly against the tumult of the period between the two world wars, with its economic collapse, labor strikes, social unrest, and Communist scares. The realism of the age is brought home by a series of newspaper articles and other faux documents, scattered throughout the book to provide a perspective outside of Iris's own.

The mysteries that Iris has been hiding - and the truth about The Blind Assassin - aren't suddenly and dazzlingly revealed all at once. They sneak up on the reader gradually through the course of the novel. As the narrative unfolds, so do the differences and similarities between the two sisters, as well as the bonds they share and the conflicts that may have led to Laura's death.

This all sounds incredibly complex, and it is. But Atwood has been doing this for a long time, and it shows. As a writer, I was blown away by the way she deftly weaves together multiple plots and time periods, never leaving the reader disoriented. With a less skilled author, this book could have been a confusing mess. Instead, the complexity here creates a rich, realistic tapestry not just of one family but of a social class and an era. In my next life, I want to be Margaret Atwood.

The Blind Assassin