The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura?s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.
The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris Chase Griffen, initially seems a little cold-blooded about this death in the family. But as Margaret Atwood’s most ambitious work unfolds–a tricky process, in fact, with several nested narratives and even an entire novel-within-a-novel–we’re reminded of just how complicated the familial game of hide-and-seek can be: What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge, then hung suspended in the afternoon sunlight, glinting like a dragonfly, for that one instant of held breath before the plummet? Of Alex, of Richard, of bad faith, of our father and his wreckage; of God, perhaps, and her fatal, triangular bargain. Meanwhile, Atwood immediately launches into an excerpt from Laura Chase’s novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. In this double-decker concoction, a wealthy woman dabbles in blue-collar passion, even as her lover regales her with a series of science-fictional parables. Complicated? You bet. But the author puts all this variegation to good use, taking expert measure of our capacity for self-delusion and complicity, not to mention desolation. Almost everybody in her sprawling narrative manages to–or prefers to–overlook what’s in plain sight. And memory isn’t much of a salve either, as Iris points out: “Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I’ve found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them.” Yet Atwood never succumbs to postmodern cynicism, or modish contempt for her characters. On the contrary, she’s capable of great tenderness, and as we immerse ourselves in Iris’s spliced-in memoir, it’s clear that this buttoned-up socialite has been anything but blind to the chaos surrounding her. –Darya Silver
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