Blind Assassin 1ST Edition Us

Written by Margaret Atwood
Review by Dean Miller

Any review of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin as a historical novel must confront Atwood’s received status as a major ‘mainstream’ novelist. With such a reputation, we will be required to view her historical fiction seriously. Simply taken as a novel, this is a superbly complex and powerful work. As a historical novel, it approaches an almost metaphysical view of humans in – reacting to – Time, described fictionally or otherwise.

The story presents the memories of Iris Chase Griffen, an octogenarian in the late 1990s, who writes in the possibly vain hope that her only grandchild will read her words. Iris is the eldest of two daughters of a man who had, of course, wanted sons; her sister Laura has immense amounts of character, spirit, and individuality but no ego-strength at all.

Laura’s suicide begins the novel, but this is not just another dysfunctional family saga. Iris’ account takes her from the 1920s into the 1930s through the war years and after. Throughout the book, another inserted narrative strand shows us the obliquely erotic progress of an affair between a young woman (we can only guess at her identity) and a young man whose identity is only slightly clearer. The man, himself a writer, entertains his lover with an ongoing ‘serial’, part fantasy and part space-opera. The Blind Assassin of the title comes from this strange and sometimes silly tale, which will live on as a cult classic and make Laura’s posthumous reputation. In her main narrative line Atwood sets out for us her usual impressive take on many standard fictional types: the Virgin, the Poor Little Rich Girl, the Social Climber, the Captain of Industry, and all their interlocked lives and times. One has the strong impression that the author is laughing at us, and, occasionally, at herself.

Atwood’s historical period and ambience is nailed in place by interset passages purporting to be newspaper accounts, ‘society’ column extracts, and letters. Atwood’s mordant delight is to create unpleasant or at least ambivalent human beings and then to make us know every repellent corner of their personalities. Impressive characterization and brilliantly articulated plot aside, the truly original angle on the historical novel in The Blind Assassin is its nearly metaphysical flavor, expressed in stark passages where the hand-tinting of photographs produces ‘ultra-real people’ (p. 193-94) or in Atwood’s side-glance, made through Iris, on the ideal image we carry of ourselves. This is a spacious, intricately designed, merciless book, where the particularities of a lived history and the nature of fiction are extended together into a different dimension or vector – and where Time itself is, I suspect, the Blind Assassin.