I must admit, I am severely partial to a narrated life-story, which includes twists and turns in the forms of death and romance, transforming the readers into the detectives. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood fulfils this criteria in the most evocative and powerful way. Carefully balanced, the author ensures the novel’s pendulum never swings too far into the excessively-narrative, nor the aloof. With Iris Chase as our narrator, we are invited to re-live the loss of her sister, Laura. This tumultuous story line is interrupted by a novel within a novel: here we are presented with a nostalgic and illusive glimpse into a perilous romance which sings of alacrity.
Set in the twentieth century, the book opens with Iris in the present day telling us about the death of her sister. Atwood then swiftly turns to the enigmatic novel published shortly after her tragic death. With the first page ridden with death, followed by a furtive love story – the quintessential prospects for any fiction novel – we are immediately gripped. Our inner detectives are brought out of hibernation by the author’s engaging writing.
The central plot follows Iris. Pithy, perceptive and illusive in her narration, she is the perfect character for carrying the responsibility of storytelling. Flaunting her masterly use of free indirect style through Iris, Atwood displays emotions without becoming emotional. However, be warned that this is not a reflection of the highly emotional, and intense novel which will shortly unwind.
Born into the Chase family – the owners of a successful button production ‘empire’ – (yes! You heard that right – buttons), Laura and Iris have to cope with a capricious childhood, during which they navigate numerous losses. Iris deftly flips between her present-day life, and the past, in a dramatic recount of the events leading to her sister’s death.
In a futile attempt to save her family’s button factory from collapsing, Iris marries Richard Griffin. Meanwhile, Laura’s mental health starts to wither. The marriage marks the metamorphosis of the novel from one of child-like naivety, to brutal reality.
From the outset, nominal determination plays an influential role in this novel. Iris, our assiduous narrator, is also the messenger Goddess, reflecting her role in establishing a bridge between us and the novel.
Meanwhile, Laura’s similarities with the fourteenth century Renaissance poet’s, Petrarch’s, romanticised Laura extend beyond just that of a name. As in the poem, Laura is fantasised about after her demise: this novel is essentially a histrionic tribute to Laura’s life. Laura is synonymous with and symbolic of unrequited love, a similarity with our Laura which is beyond coincidence: admired by many out-of-reach men within the novel. Laura is intriguing and we grow invested in her, thus, when the novel comes to an end and Laura’s disastrous ending proceeds, we can’t help feeling on the receiving end of unrequited love ourselves.
At once delicately written, this novel simultaneously holds a polemic power. This novel speaks of balance: while its structure is that of a labyrinth, the writing is pleasantly accessible, rendering it a gratifying read. Haunted by death; engrossed by romance; interwoven with enigma, this novel, above all, is one of feminism and holds a polemic power. The sentences are strung with empowerment. Margaret Atwood does not appoint the women as the victims, nor as the saviours, she allows the readers to navigate their way to the answer, guided by her delicate and emotive prose.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is published by Virago, 656 pages.