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The Blind Assassin: A Novel (original 2000; edition 2001)
by Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
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A densely written, multi-layered treatise on (self)love, (self)deception, and (self)betrayal as Iris Chase seeks to understand and avenge her sister's death, looking back at all the events leading up to it and all the subsequent choices she made afterwards. Less didactic than previous works, more stealthy in how the author ponders gender roles, individual responsibility vs societal expectations and our capacity for understanding others. Science fiction novel within the outer novel shows how all our stories are part fantasy, part history, part morality play, no matter what the format or the gilding. Interspersed newspaper accounts provide a false mirror: events are glossed over and presented in a certain light; yet this account *is* what really took place in other people's own stories.
Odi et amo – I hate and I love. Catullus’s famous paradox was not meant to describe books, but it neatly sums up my reaction to Margaret Atwood’s pluri-prizewinning novel “The Blind Assassin”.
The 20th century is coming to an end and Iris Chase, now in her eighties, knows that her days are numbered too. She decides to write her memoirs for the benefit of her estranged granddaughter Sabrina. Her tale starts chillingly: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. Having given us a glimpse of her tale’s dark ending, Iris takes us back to the Chase siblings’ protected childhood in the (fictional) Southern Ontario town of Port Ticonderoga, where their father is a respected factory owner. The business goes through a hard time and is bought out by the Griffen family, whose upcoming scion Richard Griffen eventually marries Iris. It is an unhappy match which holds within it the seeds of tragedy.
Iris’s recollections form the main narrative strand of the novel and, set as they are in the unsettled decades between the two World Wars, they give the book the feel of a historical novel or a family saga, rendered more authentic through references to actual events. This being Atwood however, the structure of the novel soon becomes increasingly complex. We learn that Laura Chase has become a literary sensation thanks to her posthumously published roman-a-clef “The Blind Assassin”, extracts of which are interspered with Iris’s story. Laura’s novel is apparently autobiographical, chronicling her love affair with one Alex Thomas, a Communist-leaning writer of pulp fiction. As if this novel-within-a-novel were not enough, Alex spices up the lovers’ encounters with storytelling, which spawns a third narrative strand – a quasi-scifi tale about the exploits of a “blind assassin” in the fantastical Planet Zycron. The Baboushka-dolls structure underlines this (meta-)novel’s obsession with the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, truth and deceit.
Atwood’s novel has been described as a postmodernist masterpiece and I have little hesitation in agreeing with this appraisal. Its potentially convoluted structure is deftly handled, leading to an effective climax in the final chapters. The dialogue and narrative voice are perfectly pitched and hardly a page goes by without the reader chancing upon an arresting image, observation or turn-of-phrase. Yet, I often found myself viscerally hating the novel and it took me a real effort to finish it. Why?
I think that it’s mostly down to the novel’s or, to be exact, Iris’s worldview. Her bitterness poisons all the characters, who invariably come across as scheming, manipulative and cruel or, at best, short-sighted and naive. Even Laura, who has little time for material trappings and is one of the more “spiritual” figures in the book, has the nasty habit of entering into “pacts” with God. Which, it must be said, He consistently breaks.
Indeed, the novel’s world is one in which everything is subject to negotiation and everything is up for sale. This applies particularly to the women who, like the bosomy figures in Alex Thomas’s pulp stories, are merely chattel in a male-dominated society.
Yes, I know – Atwood is making a very valid point here. And, yes, I do appreciate that sometimes an argument needs to be strongly (and unsubtly?) presented for it to strike home. And I know as well that one should not mistake a character’s point of view with that of the novel and still less with that of the author.
But the fact remains that I found the novel’s bleakness suffocating, its dark humour and glinting brilliance merely rubbing salt into this reader’s wounds. At the risk of sounding like an Eastenders fan who rants at the actor playing the baddie, I’ll give a miserly two stars to this dazzling novel which I hated ... and loved.
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks.of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens. I was informed of the accident by a policeman: the car was mine, and they'd traced the license. His tone was respectful: no doubt he recognized Richard's name.
I might have rated this a star higher if I hadn't already read a book with a very similar set-up and plot twist--"The Thirteenth Tale" is similar in some ways and I think did the twist a little better. I had trouble getting invested in these characters and, like other reviewers, I was more intrigued and interested in the "story" world than the world of Iris and her sister. It's well written, but after all the build up about the end, I was rather disappointed.
Die Lebensgeschichte der Iris hebt sich wohltuend von jenen Romanen ab, die junge Frauen der 'besseren' Gesellschaft nach einer privilegierten Kindheit in ein Erwachsenendasein ohne Brüche und Krisen führen. Dennoch ist es schade, dass Margaret Atwood ihrer Heldin letztlich so wenig 'Mumm' mitgibt - es müssen dreißig Jahre von Iris' Leben vergehen, bis sie zum ersten Mal aufbegehrt.
Margaret Atwood erzählt Iris' und Lauras Geschichte auf drei Ebenen: anhand von Iris' Rückblick, Lauras Manuskript und diversen Zeitungsausschnitten. Atwood hat mit "Der blinde Mörder" nicht nur die Geschichte eines Frauenlebens geschrieben, sondern auch einen historischen Roman, eine Liebesgeschichte, eine Sciencefiction-Story und die Geschichte zweier Schwestern. Sie belohnt das Interesse des Lesers mit einer Geschichte von außergewöhnlicher Dichte, der es gelingt, die sozialen, industriellen und politischen Ereignisse in einer kanadischen Kleinstadt nachzuzeichnen und eine Chronik des 20. Jahrhunderts darzustellen.
Margaret Atwood poses a provocative question in her new novel, "The Blind Assassin." How much are the bad turns of one's life determined by things beyond our control, like sex and class, and how much by personal responsibility? Unlike most folks who raise this question so that they can wag their finger -- she's made her bed, and so on -- Atwood's foray into this moral terrain is complex and surprising. Far from preaching to the converted, Atwood's cunning tale assumes a like-minded reader only so that she can argue, quite persuasively, from the other side.
In her tenth novel, Margaret Atwood again demonstrates that she has mastered the art of creating dense, complex fictions from carefully layered narratives, making use of an array of literary devices - flashbacks, multiple time schemes, ambiguous, indeterminate plots - and that she can hook her readers by virtue of her exceptional story-telling skills. The Blind Assassin is not a book that can easily be put to one side, in spite of its length and the fact that its twists and turns occasionally try the patience; yet it falls short of making the emotional impact that its suggestive and slippery plot at times promises.
Ms. Atwood's absorbing new novel, ''The Blind Assassin,'' features a story within a story within a story -- a science-fiction yarn within a hard-boiled tale of adultery within a larger narrative about familial love and dissolution. The novel is largely unencumbered by the feminist ideology that weighed down such earlier Atwood novels as ''The Edible Woman'' and ''The Handmaid's Tale,'' and for the most part it is also shorn of those books' satiric social vision. In fact, of all the author's books to date, ''The Blind Assassin'' is most purely a work of entertainment -- an expertly rendered Daphne du Maurieresque tale that showcases Ms. Atwood's narrative powers and her ardent love of the Gothic.
In her ingenious new tale of love, rivalry, and deception, The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood interweaves several genres — a confessional memoir, a pulp fantasy novel, newspaper clippings — to tease out the secrets behind the 1945 death of 25-year-old socialite Laura Chase.
Belongs to Publisher Series
TEAdue [TEA ed.] (1113)
Is contained in
Margaret Atwood Collection - The Handmaid's Tale, The Penelopiad, Life Before Man, Cats Eye, Murder In The Dark by Margaret Atwood
Is abridged in
A science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in a dingy backstreet room. Set in a multi-layered story of the death of a woman's sister and husband in the 1940's, with a novel-within-a novel as a background.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.54Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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