I’ve been reading Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” for several weeks now. It’s almost as long as Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” but except for its length, has nothing in common with that novel. I must say that it is one of the most astoundingly crafted novels in recent memory. It won the Booker Prize in 2000, the year after J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” won, and I believe that the committee made a fantastic decision with this one.
The novel concerns Iris Chase, the daughter of a Canadian industrialist who inherited a fortune by way of button factories. Iris has a sister named Laura who dies at the age of 25, leaving behind a science fiction novel titled “The Blind Assassin.” In fact, the first sentence of Atwood’s novel is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
The novel quickly moves from Iris’ autobiography, written in the present, when she is 85 years old, to excerpts of Laura’s novel, a story of a man and a woman who are having an affair. The interspersed narrative voices and historical details combine to create a rich image of pre- and postwar Canada.
Atwood’s structure is perfect. She begins with facts – newspaper clippings inserted into the narrative to give the reader concrete details about what happened. Somehow, though, the novel shows that the truth is completely subjective. As you read the novel, details are introduced in such subtle ways that it seems as though you already knew them.
I don’t know how Atwood wrote this. It is so tightly plotted that it isn’t just a matter of placing certain events in a certain order; it is the difference between saying that something happened, and giving the reader the ability to read between the lines. Halfway through the novel, I knew what happened at the end. The clues are all there. In this regard, the title is absolute genius. It gives you everything.
I think the biggest criticism of this novel is also its strongest point: I hate Iris. The novel shows her to be a naive, weak-willed individual who destroys everything she loves through inaction. She does not change at the end of the novel. She is frustrating and I think Atwood wrote her specifically to show the futility of doing nothing. I think this is a work of social criticism.