Jan/Feb 2001 Book Reviews

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury, Allen & Unwin (Oct. 2000) 521 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 4937 0

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge".

It's a good beginning. But I seem to be having a problem with novels at the moment. The Blind Assassin is the third novel in a row which I have almost abandoned somewhere near the start but have ended up enjoying immensely. Each time the fault had been that of one of the characters (or so it seems) rather than that of the author.

In The Blind Assassin, the fault was that of Alex Thomas, a pulp science-fiction writer, rabid socialist and a wanted man. And it was his science-fiction writing which caused the problem. "Let's see," as Alex says on page 10,

...On the Planet Zycron, located in another dimension of space, there's a rubble-strewn plain. To the north is the ocean, which is violet in colour. To the west is a range of mountains, said to be roamed after sunset by the voracious female inhabitants of the tombs located there...

I thought Margaret Atwood had gone mad. Now, I think she just decided that she needed a challenge or she wanted to live dangerously.

Of course, this is not all the book is about, even if it does take its title from Alex Thomas's story. And, of course, Atwood is such a skilled story-teller that she keeps you reading and keeps you on your toes. But it was a close call for a while there at the start: aliens with pointed ears and vertical slits for eyes generally bore me to tears, even if they do wear nothing but red "carchineal" metal shorts to protect their vital parts. Other readers, no doubt, will love them and find them very funny (which they often are).

More central to the story, are Iris Griffen and her younger sister Laura Chase. Iris, now in her eighties, sets out to write the true story of Laura's life and death, and in the process, she tells her own story. Her voice and her intelligence are wonderfully sharp and her dry wit is a delight. Her story constantly subverts the reader's expectations and is constantly surprising. First, as the powerless wife of an affluent businessman and his dominating sister, she tells of her childhood. Now, as she is writing, she is an independent but much poorer woman in a town where her family was once well-off and influential.

Iris's story is also the story of her family and of their involvement in the social, industrial and political history of the Canadian town where they have lived for some hundred years. But there is nothing dry about it. She writes about people and events with sadness, thoughtfulness and humour: of her grandparents Adelia and Benjamin; of her aloof, unhappy, war-wounded father who had clearly wanted boys to carry on the family business; of the family servant, Renee, who virtually brought her and her sister up and who speaks almost entirely in cliches; and, with wry tolerance, of Renee's daughter, Myra, and her husband, who now help her to get about and take care of small chores for her. And she writes in irritation about the indignities of age: "It's an affront, all of that. Weak knees, arthritic knuckles, varicose veins, infirmities, indignities - they aren't ours, we never wanted or claimed them. Inside our heads we carry ourselves perfected—ourselves at the best age, and in the best light as well..."

But Iris is not the only writer in the book. There is Alex with his science-fiction story, which is grim and sexy and funny as he invents it verbally in the rooms where he hides from the authorities. There is Laura, whose book, notoriously and outrageously sexually explicit for the time at which it was published, has attracted a cult following. And, of course, there is Atwood, who subtly braids all these stories together and gradually reveals their buried secrets. Hers is a masterly performance.

The Blind Assassin (Atwood's book, not Alex Thomas's) is absorbing, intriguing, funny, moving and very enjoyable. And to my surprise, I even began to appreciate the science-fiction too.


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