A review of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

 “Two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labelled bones.” (484) Mathematical reality is not the only challenge Atwood’s The Blind Assassin makes to the reader’s assumptions. The Blind Assassin takes the reader on a deep character study which turns characterisation on its head. It takes the reader on a dramatic plot ride which ends up destroying the notion of plot, and presents an exquisitely crafted and believable narrator which questions the whole idea of a narrative voice. Atwood’s control of her narrative voice is superb, as she layers the stories and voices together adeptly, leading us back always to ourselves, the ultimate character.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Blind Assassin
By Margaret Atwood
Virago, 30 July 2001
ISBN: 1 86049990 9

“Two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labelled bones.” (484) Mathematical reality is not the only challenge Atwood’s The Blind Assassin makes to the reader’s assumptions. The Blind Assassin takes the reader on a deep character study which turns characterisation on its head. It takes the reader on a dramatic plot ride which ends up destroying the notion of plot, and presents an exquisitely crafted and believable narrator which questions the whole idea of a narrative voice. Atwood’s control of her narrative voice is superb, as she layers the stories and voices together adeptly, leading us back always to ourselves, the ultimate character.

The Blind Assassin begins with 82 year old Iris Chase Griffen, looking back at her sister’s death 50 years ago, and on that level, the book presents a fairly straight memoir. Iris is writing down what happened, recounting her “tale” in an attempt to capture something that is true; something that will remain when she is gone, and explain everything to her granddaughter: “I pay out my line, I pay out my line, this black thread I’m spinning across the page.” (345). This is the first person narrative: The story of Iris, and Laura. Sisters. Rivals in a sense, for the many men, and few jobs in their lives. Merged with Iris’s memoir is Laura’s fiction, The Blind Assassin, the story of a rich married woman and her affair in the 1930s with a young communist/pulp science fiction writer on the run. Within that novel is the story which the science fiction writer is telling to the woman “the blinded carpet weaver slave children of Sakiel-Norn who become assassins, and his love for a mute near sacrifice on the far away planet of Zycron. The story itself is deliberately trashy, with ‘dead women with azure hair and eyes like snake-filled pits’, but it is also compelling as it combines doomed love against the odds, and the narrative interruptions of all of the characters, including those in The Blind Assassin, as they fight against time and convention, and those of Iris’ other memoir. There are also the interspersed newspaper clippings, which present another aspect of Iris’ story – the society columns, and death notices; a style of interspersing the external story with the internal one which was perfected in Atwood’s previous novel Alias Grace. These 4 bits of narrative; the memoir, the novel, the story within the novel, and the clippings are perfectly blended, working smoothly together, each as a kind of narrative clue to the novel’s denouement.

One of the things which holds the novel together through the separate narratives is the continual flashes of poetic truth or bits of wisdom, which come from Iris, or from the hero of Chases’ The Blind Assassin novel, or from Laura. Iris talks about the narrative process: “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.” (118), leaving a trail of clues to the overall meaning of the novel, and the key themes, such “An odd thing, souvenir-hunting: now becomes then even while it is still now. You don’t really believe you’re there, and so you nick the proof, or something you mistake for it” (465) or “What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light” (484). There is the Saskiel-Norn saying that “only the blind are free” (28), which alludes to Iris’ own blindness, and the blindness of Justitia, and Eros: “Clumsy blind gods with edged weapons”. There is also Laura’s tinting of the “true colours” in the photographs – final message to Iris. These pieces of truth, of poetry, are like pebbles in the waters of this novel – helping the reader across, and also leaving something solid with the reader – clues to the ultimate truth in a world where truth is slippery. As each illusion is stripped away, we have only these pebbles left , as readers, to help us grasp truth.

There are many themes, and symbols working through The Blind Assassin. There is the natural background – not only of the rocks and trees, water and sky – the beautiful imagery which continues despite any personal tragedy – the thunderstorms, and snowstorms, and the sky with its hazy grey; its sunsets, its icicles. There are the beautiful Canadian seasons – the autumn with its milkweed pods, and labyrinths of shadow; the hot summers, and flowers, and wild geese; but there is history too. The backdrop of WWI and WWII, the wars that have such a direct personal impact by removing the men, and destroying innocence. There is the depression, and the fear of communism. There is the union activity which results in the button factory fire, and Richard’s own political playing of each of these elements. Toronto and Port Ticonderoga “the large city and small town” and the impact of war and the Red Scare, and privation, and depression on the personal lives of the characters in this book. There is the old Chase money, and the new Griffen money; and interwoven with these themes are the personal relationships. There is, of course, Iris and Laura: Iris as Laura’s caretaker. The big sister caring for her little dreamy, irresponsible sister in the absence of a mother, and later, a father, balanced by the later worldly author, who sees the “real” Iris, and offers her own weary wisdom, serious questions, and cynicism, which contrast with her intensity and innocence. There is Iris and Winifred, their “sisterly” relationship offering a kind of anti-thesis to that of Iris and Laura, and also to the motherly relationships of Reenie and later Myra and Iris; Winifred and Sabrina; Iris and Aimee, Aimee and Sabrina. There are real, and false mothers: “What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves”. There is the woman versus man; father and daughter, as Richard replaces Norval, taking over his factories and children.

One of the key themes throughout The Blind Assassin is Time. Atwood handles time deftly, keeping the narrative, and story, moving chronologically forward, while reminding us that the first level of narration is the main point of reference – set in a present which contains computers and television; shopping malls, muggers, and pollution. We follow the events of Iris’ memoir as their parallel story unfolds in the novel of The Blind Assassin, a mythical past, and a real past; a mythical future, and a real future. The characters are always simultaneously conscious of the past and the future. The male character in The Blind Assassin is “already pushing her away, into the future” (33). The characters in the present are the children and grandchildren of those in the past – there is Myra, whose overbearing, and irritating, but gentle and necessary care recalls that of her mother Reenie, in snatches between Reenie’s story. There is Iris’ impending death, reported in an obituary which appears to the reader before we reach “The threshold” or final word from Iris, just as we get the final word from Laura after her death “Besotten”. Time is shifty, but pervasive, “But why bother about the end of the world? It’s the end of the world every day, for someone. Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.”

The characterisation in The Blind Assassin is exquisite. At times the novel reads like an ongoing portrait of Laura. Her memorialisation by Iris- an act of atonement, as she develops through her sister’s narrative, and the reactions of others against her culminating in the chapters of her novel The Blind Assassin. There is also Iris, who is, jointly with Laura, the heroine of the novel, and her own characterisation is revealed piecemeal, again, through the eyes of others, and her own memoirs, ostensibly about Laura, but ultimately about herself. The two sisters, Laura and Iris, are, as Iris ultimately reveals, two sides of a coin – the other hand in the photograph. The one always out of sight, “whichever way you look at it”. There is also Sabrina – the beautiful, and absent youth – the future, the object of the story, or the other side of the reader.

Sabrina betrays Iris by taking the wrong side; by disappearing, but everyone in this novel is a betrayer. There is Richard’s betrayal of Iris, and of Norval, her father, and there is also Iris’ betrayal of Richard, and of Winifred, in her pretence at being something she isn’t, and in using him, and in her affair. There is Iris’ betrayal of Laura, in blinding herself to the damage and hurt caused by Richard and Winifred, as well as her inability to share with Laura – to confide in her truthfully. There is the betrayal by death, by disappearance, and by illusion “those images of fulfilment which appear in fiction” or as a shadow at the window; a daydream – only to disappear in the light of day, leaving the longing which sits like a continual note throughout the symphony of this book. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is Iris’ betrayal of the reader – her trick and illusion as she herself becomes a fiction, a signature, the writer of black scrawl which unwinds “in a long dark thread of ink across the page, tangled but legible” (118) or a letter “deposited here, collected there. But a letter addressed to no one” (206). While addressing herself to Sabrina, Iris is also addressing herself to the reader: “since Laura is no longer who you thought she was, you’re no longer who you think you are, either.” (627)

Time and truth, character and plot, are all shifting sands in this story, where nothing is to be trusted, and everyone betrays each other, but The Blind Assassin is no post-modern tome on the meaningless of everything. There is beauty in the pain. There is meaning in the fiction. Like the science fiction story of the peach women, pure simple endless happiness, and gratification is no Eden: “The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in our out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road”. There is a kind of truth in The Blind Assassin, in its mystery and exquisite prose which renders a meaning in the loss, regret, misery and yearning. It is the promise of Sabrina. The story which continues to exist, and provoke, long after its characters have dissolved into newsprint: “I offer the truth, I say. I’m the last one who can. It’s the only thing in this room that will still be here in the morning” (536).

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