Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2020

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, winner of the Booker Prize in 2000

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, won the Booker Prize in 2000.

March 31st, 2002

Beware: lots of spoilers if you haven’t read the book.

This story is superb. Atwood is one of the best writers of our time, and everything I’ve read of hers (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, Oryx and Crake and The Penelopiad) has been terrific. The Blind Assassin is complex, and readers have to be content with ambiguity, but it’s well worth it.

Iris is the narrator, but that’s not clear at first. She’s an old woman, remembering, setting the record straight (she says) for her grand-daughter, Sabrina. She ponders her sister’s suicide and a parallel story, a strange fantasy novel , which seems to the reader at first to be completely irrelevant. It is supposed to have been posthumously published by an unidentified pair of authors, then the author of this story-within-a-story is revealed as Iris’s dead sister Laura – but it’s not, and eventually it becomes clear that Iris wrote it herself, not Laura.

Two sisters, relics of an older time when women were merely decorative pawns, bought and sold to enhance the social position of the men in their lives. In class-conscious Britain, the Chase family would have been dismissed with a haughty sniff as ‘Trade’, but in Canada, in the backblocks beyond Toronto, theirs was a respectable old family with a successful manufacturing business and the girls had to ‘marry well’.

Why, I wondered, did Richard Griffin, a wealthy industrialist in his own right, want to marry Iris when her father’s button factory failed? Was the Chase family name really so valuable that a dynamic man like him would want an insipid, ineffectual wife? All the efforts of Winifred, Richard’s awful sister, to mould Iris as a suitable wife failed; like Laura, Iris became dreamy and feeble (and didn’t eat) to avoid unpleasantness, and she’s a failure as a society wife.

Both Laura and Iris are besotted by Alex Thomas. He was some kind of subversive during the Depression, presumably in the pay of the Russians; then he’s involved in the Spanish Civil War and finally killed off in WW2. Laura learns of his death through a telegram because he had named her next of kin, a message from beyond the grave that shows which sister he preferred.

Iris is the narrator, so we’re told that Alex loved her, but he was also Laura’s lover. The strange stories interwoven with the main story purport to be Laura’s account of events, but as we eventually know, they were really written by Iris. They tell of meetings in sleazy rooms, of Alex composing SF fantasies, and how he finally sends one of these stories off for publication. Through these co-authored stories we see Alex for what he is: brutal, ruthless and manipulative; the female contributions bring softenings, happy endings and kindness. When Iris finds a copy in a trashy store, she’s surprised to find that her ‘blind assassin’ and the ‘mute virgin’ have been omitted from the story. Stripped of her fantasies, the story is what her behaviour has been: merely sordid.

As the pages turn, Iris finally realises what the reader has already concluded: Richard has a penchant for young girls and his taste extended to Laura. He forced Laura to abort her child, but the child Iris bears is Alex’s. Iris names the baby Aimee, but she’s not much loved by her mother, who’s not a loving person at all….She’s a real old misery. She paints herself as exploited and bullied, but she’s scornful of Reenie and her daughter Myra – both of whom are good to her in her old age. She’s very conscious of money and status – her own social standing is ambiguous, but she’s delighted to see Winifred snubbed.

So, who is the blind assassin? The one who doesn’t see, sent to murder the sacrificial virgin as a way of challenging the status quo? Not Alex, although by seducing both girls he’s just the same as Richard, only seedier. I think that Iris is – she pretends to be the mute innocent who finally reveals all, using Laura’s name to publish the book that ruins Richard’s career. She does this under the pretext of needing to tell the truth to Sabrina, in a vain attempt to win back her grand-daughter’s affection.

It’s Iris who tells Laura that she had a secret affair with Alex, so that Laura drives off a bridge in despair. It’s Iris who publishes the book and drives Richard to suicide. Her choices are vindictive, cruel and spiteful; she seems not to have a real freind or confidante anywhere. When her daughter and grand-daughter reject her just as Myra’s mother Reenie finally does, she has no one to blame but herself.

It’s beautifully written, capturing the tone of the period with details of clothes, buildings and politics, and Atwood has complete mastery of her characters. Iris is a sardonic snob, much given to judging others and utterly wrong about people because she’s so superficial. And yet, we feel just a little pity for her in her loneliness, at the end.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 31.3.2002.


Responses

  1. It is such a pleasure to re-read your reviews of
    old favourites.

    Like

    • Thanks, Carmel, and BTW congratulations on another year of the Carmel Bird Digital LitAward. I was delighted to see that Apologia by Michalia Arathimos won, because I reviewed her novel Aukati and am hopeful that she will go on to do more terrific things:)

      Like

  2. Hi Lisa
    Thanks again for a great review. This is possibly my favourite Atwood, although all of her books are fantastically well written and are usually very challenging of one’s initial assumptions from the start of each text. Her darkish, natural inclination to dystopian stories and choice of mainly odd or unlikeable characters, who she manages to get you to feel some empathy for, make her books refreshingly different from most other modern authors. Long may she continue.

    Chris

    Like

    • Amen to that!
      Though, perhaps perversely, I haven’t read The Testaments. Something about the hype deterred me, but I expect that will wear off…

      Like

  3. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Lisa! I read Alias Grace and then very nearly everything since and a few from before. The Blind Assassin is one of my old favorites, too.

    Amazing you have your old blog since 2002! Mine is only since 2011 when I transferred from iWeb to WordPress and before that it was Geocities starting in 1998? – sigh – the Geocities is lost in the dust of a meltdown after which I took a break for a few years. But I managed to transfer some of the best stuff from iWeb to WordPress. – so I wonder when I read Blind Assassin. ???

    Like

    • Uh, not quite. This blog, and my other blogs go back no further than 2008 when I learned how to do it on WordPress. I did have a Geocities site which I used for teaching ESL at school, that was probably in the early 2000s, and I had travel blog with Blogger at some time but I transferred it all over to the new WordPress one. So this review dates back to my reading journal, which I have kept since 1997.
      Having lost the Geocities site and also the Wiki that I used for teaching too, I do worry about changes in technology which make sites disappear…

      Like

      • The reason I started blogging my reading was because I seemed incapable of keeping a hand written log! I’d tried almost my whole reading life but … And then came Geocities!

        Like

        • When I first started doing it I was a member of a US online bookgroup called Bookies Too, and there was a woman in that group who had kept a journal since she was a child!

          Like

  4. This is up there with my very favourite Atwoods. I wrote in my Books Read spreadsheet “Very clever integration of structure with meaning; wonderfully acerbic old woman protagonist”.

    You have kept far more thorough notes than I did. I did makes notes about books in the diaries I kept, and the spreadsheet will help me find the right diary, but while I always wrote something, sometimes I wrote very little. Like Bekah, I started my blog to make me be more formal about recording my thoughts!

    Like

    • I think that the reason this one is more detailed is because I belonged to a book group at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I *loved* this when I read it (as soon as it came out) and am almost scared to revisit it. Although as I have a sketchy recollection of the plot it would most probably feel like a brand new book…. ;D

    Like

    • I think it was the first Atwood I’d read since The Handmaid’s Tale, and it was so different! I’ve been a fan ever since.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. An excellent and insightful review Lisa. I read this pre blog so I don’t have any notes on my own reaction. I did love it though wasn’t as keen on the sections dealing with the fantasy story – generally I can’t get into fantasy.

    Like

    • Yes, I think I struggled with those a bit too. But sometimes, it just works and I think it does in TBA.
      The book I’m reading at the moment, Nothing to see by Pip Adam, is the same. I am two thirds through, and am lost in awe at how this author has done something incredible to make some very powerful points.

      Like

      • Me too! If someone tells me in advance that there’s a fantasy element in a book, it is quite a turn-off and I’ll be less inclined to read it (like The engagement of the greengage tree, for example) but quite often (if it’s not a straight fantasy genre) I find that it’s OK if I do go ahead and read the book. I just loved TBA every whichway as I recollect.

        Like

      • Yep, if it hadn’t been critical to the book I wouldn’t have been able to read it

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This is one of my favourites among her works; I love the parallel clues you get between the two storylines and how things mesh together. It’s one that I’m considering rereading for this year’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month, that and Cat’s Eye, another favourite. Rereading her has always revealed new layers for me (though it can be hard to make time for rereading when there are always loads of fresh reads around too).

    Like

    • That’s my problem too. I have one Atwood to read, but it’s on my Kindle (I don’t know what possessed me!) and I have so many other books to read…
      Still, I’ve reserved a copy of The Heart Goes Last, so hopefully, I’ll get that in time to read it…

      Like

  8. Hi Lisa, thanks for a great review. I think this is my favourite Atwood novel. It really is an intriguing read. I wish I had the time to reread it. But my local library have just given me 11 books to read.

    Like

    • Yes, I think I’m going to get a great swag of reserves all at once, now that the libraries are opening up again. Goodness knows how I’ll get on reading them all.

      Like


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