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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

by Margaret Atwood

(4/5 stars)

This is one of those books that may be a challenge for some readers because the narrative is like a jigsaw puzzle dumped out onto a table. Over the course of the book's 500+ pages, Atwood assembles the puzzle piece-by-piece using a memoir, newspaper clippings, and bits of a novel called "The Blind Assassin." This third item includes sidebar sci-fi stories so that we have a story-in-a-story-in-a-story. Needless to say that can make it confusing.

To make some sense of this without giving too much away: Iris and Laura Chase were born to the owner of a button manufacturing company in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario in the late 1910s. Iris was the older, practical sister while Laura was always the odd, dreamy one--and probably the more beautiful of the two. Their mother dies when they're still children, leaving them to be cared for by their servant Reenie and a number of tutors.

But as the Depression hits the button industry hard and their father runs into financial trouble, the only solution is for Iris to marry her father's wealthy rival Richard Griffen. Iris is to be his trophy wife, groomed by his meddling sister Winifred, as Richard begins a political career.

Flash forward to 1945. Iris and Richard are still married, but not happily, and Laura has gone off the grid for years. She returns to learn a terrible secret and kills herself (most likely) by driving off the bridge. (That's not a spoiler because it's the first scene of the novel.) A couple years later, Laura's sole novel "The Blind Assassin" is published by Iris and Richard dies under mysterious circumstances. Winifred uses this to take custody of Iris's child and from there very little happens until the present day when Iris is an old woman in poor health recounting all this.

In the novel-within-the-novel, an unnamed rich woman is having an affair with an unnamed poor man. The identity of these lovers becomes readily apparent for anyone with a lick of sense. (Iris even says in her memoir near the end that we should have caught on long before.) There's another mystery concerning this novel-within-the-novel that I also figured out far in advance.

The dilemma there is that if I figured it out so far ahead of time then it makes the book sound predictable. But if I'd been wrong and the solution had been simpler, then I'd complain about the mystery being too dull and commonplace. Therefore the best option would really be for the solution to the mysteries to be something so far out that no one would guess it in a million years--although then I'd complain about the solution having a deux ex machina ring to it; some people are just never happy.

The make-up of this is challenging and interesting, though certainly not unique. Another Canadian woman did something similar: Carol Shields with "The Stone Diaries" used letters, recipes, and a memoir to tell the story of another Canadian woman who similarly married an older man. "The Blind Assassin" has more soapy twists and turns to make it a better read than that other book, though.

I enjoyed the novel-within-the-novel far more than the memoir parts. Reading about a sick old woman is not pleasant--I could just call up my mother to hear that--and the rest of the memoir seemed pretty pedestrian to me. Woman marries older man she doesn't love, their marriage is predictably unhappy, blah, blah, blah. I have a feeling, though, that readers of the "fairer sex" will be able to better relate to those parts and thus enjoy them far more. I was more interested in the sci-fi element, although that wrapped up unsatisfactorily.

The way the novel-within-the-novel concluded did add some emotional punch to the ending of the memoir. All the loose ends were tied up very nicely at the end, although it didn't quite have the impact of Ian McEwan's "Atonement," which also won the Booker Prize for literature and is also another challenging read that has a really powerful twist at the end.

Still, I'd have to say that if you don't mind puzzles and especially if you liked "The Stone Diaries" then this will be right up your alley.

That is all.

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