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.