‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

There are authors who are great storytellers (Larry Watson), expert writers (Jonathan Franzen) and innovative stylists (Jennifer Egan) and then there are those rare authors who do all three: Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s Booker Prizewinner, The Blind Assassin is an eclectic novel that highlights her expertise in all three of these categories.

There are three stories at work in The Blind Assassin: the present day narration of Iris Chase, the heiress of a once prominent Depression era industrial giant, a science fiction novel-within-a-novel composed by two anonymous paramours and finally, newspaper clippings and correspondence, providing an unbiased perspective and the story that unfolds. The novel opens in the late 1990s as Iris, at age 83, reflects on the events leading up to her sister’s mysterious death shortly after the end of World War II.

Interspersed between the page-turning sections dealing with Iris’s youth and young adulthood is the nearly equally engaging ‘The Blind Assassin’, the novel-within-a-novel. At its most basic level, ‘The Blind Assassin’ is the bizarre story of the inhabitants of the planet Zycron as they ward off alien invaders. The paltry tale is devised by two unnamed lovers as they rendezvous in various rundown cafes and hotel rooms. Eventually, to the reader’s delight, through Atwood’s expert storytelling, the identities of the illicit couple are revealed.

While the story itself keeps the pages turning, Atwood’s writing shines throughout. In fact, not only is her style superb, but insightfully quotable as well. With Iris as her proxy, Atwood gives voice to various axioms of growing up and growing old. At one point, Iris questions her motive to document the story of her family’s demise lamenting, “Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants.”

Published in 2000, the format of The Blind Assassin is ahead of its time. Not only does Atwood weave two apparently unrelated plots into the same story, she tastefully inserts fictional newspaper clippings circa 1930 into the text as well. These clippings are not only fun to read in their period style, but they serve as well to provide an objective take on unreliable narrator Iris’s version of the events.

I haven’t always had great luck reading Booker Prizewinning novels (I still can’t seem to get through The Finkler Question), but Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin makes up for it. A fascinating story, great writing and innovative structure made for a great read that I highly recommend.

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5 responses to “‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

  1. In my review of the book I analyzed it as having 4 stories, current day Iris, 1930’s Iris, the unnamed lovers, and the alien planet. It’s really splitting hairs at that point, but no matter how you break it up I would still look at it the same way. I fully understand why it won the Booker Prize and why it is considered a great novel. My main problem is that there is no indication at all of how all 3 or 4 storylines are related until the very end of the book. What that basically means is that you have to read the book twice to really understand what is going on in the story.

    I’m not saying that the book is not worth reading twice, and I’m not saying that I’ll never read it again. But overall I think that a book should be able to stand on it’s own during a single read-through than this book does (I’ve also had a similar problem with some of Chuck Palahniuk’s books, the twist at the end redefines the entire book and you really need to re-read the book knowing what the twist is).

  2. edit: that sentence in the second paragraph should read “But overall I think that a book should be able to stand on it’s own during a single read-through better than this book does.”

  3. Good point, Adam. I am usually of the opinion that there are so many great books to be read out there that I rarely re-read books I’ve already taken the time to get through and review. At the same time, though, I knew the threads of this story would come together at some point, and it forced me to really pay attention to the details along the way.

  4. I really enjoyed The Blind Assassin and I was also a bit disappointed by The Finkler Question!

  5. Atwood rocks.

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