I’ve read a lot of books in the past twenty years or so. I’ve lost count. I’ve enjoyed narratives, characters, plot twists—you name it. But there are few times where I will read sentences, pause and reread sentences because I wonder just where the writer pulled that brilliance from. These passages, dare I say, amaze me, and make me think back over the pieces I’ve written knowing that I could never top the passages I just read.
I lost count how many times I did this while reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This early twenty-first century novel combines elements of gothic drama, romantic suspense, and science fiction fantasy while using different narrative forms: novel within a novel, newspaper clippings, and a memoir-esque narrative. These alternate, blend together, to tell the story of the Chase family, particularly the two sisters, Iris and Laura.
Going into this book club pick, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it would be good; Margaret Atwood wrote it, and it won the Booker Prize. And I loved this novel. My library copy has so many sticky notes marking passages that made me wonder, made me nod my head at its truthfulness, and made me rethink how to write descriptions. Some examples:
“But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.” (2)
“‘Underneath it all, your father loves you.’ … Now I think it was more complicated than that. It may have been a warning. It may also have been a burden. Even if love was underneath it all, there was a great deal piled on top, and what would you find when you dug down? Not a simple gift, pure gold and shining; instead something ancient and possibly baneful, like an iron charm rusting among old bones. A talisman of sorts, this love, but a heavy one; a heavy thing for me to carry around with me, slung on its iron chain around my neck.” (107)
“Not much of a nightmare, you’d say. Wait till you try it. I woke up desolate.
Why does the mind do such things? Turn on us, rend us, dig the claws in. If you get hungry enough, they say, you start eating your own heart.
Maybe it’s much the same. Nonsense. It’s all chemicals. I need to take steps, about these dreams. There must be a pill.” (329)
“The summer heat has come in earnest, settling down over the town like cream soup. Malarial weather, it would’ve been once; cholera weather. The trees I walk beneath are wilting umbrellas, the paper is damp under my fingers, the words I write feather at the edges like lipstick on an aging mouth. Just climbing the stairs I sprout a thin moustache of sweat.” (48)
As with “The Hundred Secret Senses,” I couldn’t tell which narrative I enjoyed reading more: the novel within a novel called The Blind Assassin, written by Laura Chase, or Iris’s narrative about her family history and her relationship with Laura. The first part of the book—which begins with Iris’s narrative and goes into a newspaper clipping about Laura’s death and then into the prologue of The Blind Assassin—is set up to put assumptions into the reader’s head. As you read through the novel, those assumptions (whatever they were) are broken down as more and more truths are revealed within the various forms. Though I wasn’t much interested in the newspaper clippings at parts, I realized that they left clues about either the narrative preceding it or the narrative that was to follow.
And you need to pay attention to the chapters from The Blind Assassin and the newspaper clippings because Iris would inevitably leave things out of her memoir narratives. She would tell you perhaps eight or nine-tenths of her story, and you had to assume the information that she was leaving out. It made me wonder why she was picking and choosing which information to share. If she was writing this down for her estranged granddaughter or even Reenie, shouldn’t she provide more context, and perhaps all of the answers since they wouldn’t be reading this until after she had died?
One of my biggest queries as I read through the book, and well after I finished, was how Atwood went about writing The Blind Assassin. Which narrative came to her first? Did the science fiction novel within a novel come first? Or did she write Iris’s chapters first, leaving the newspaper clipping for last?
There are so, so many things I wish to air out in this review but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. (Though one of the “plot twists” revealed toward the end of the book I managed to piece together well enough to not be surprised; sometimes I miss the clues and I get to be surprised, but not this time.) You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say put this on your to-read list.