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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000) 637 p.

Winner of the 2000 Booker Prize (automatically the most prestigious), The Blind Assassin is “an extraordinary and compelling story… set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth century history,” if you consider a generic romance to be extraordinary and compelling, and the twentieth century to be the twenty-year span between the world wars. The novel is a narrated by Iris Chase, an elderly woman in the late 1990’s who is writing about her experiences growing up in the 20’s and 30’s, particularly her relationship with her sister – whom, we learn early in the book, committed suicide a week after WWII ended.

I wrote in my review of The Year of The Flood that I don’t think Margaret Atwood is capable of writing a bad book, and that holds true; I was never bored or frustrated with The Blind Assassin, but never particularly engaged by it either. Iris’ modern-day observations about the world around her are about as interesting as you’d expect an old woman’s grumbling to be. Her recollections of the past, which comprise the bulk of the novel, are far more interesting – but, as I said above, never amazingly so. The story-within-a-story told to her by an anonymous lover, the pulp fantasy story of the blind assassin, is also interesting despite being an obvious allegorical diversion. Fortunately, throughout the book, Atwood’s word-to-word quality of prose never drops below the level of “quite good” and is often considerably higher.

As always with Atwood, this is a book about feminism, and about the relationship men have with women. As with The Year of the Flood and The Handmaid’s Tale – and perhaps all of Atwood’s work, even a book like Oryx & Crake, which features damaged but fundamentally goodhearted and well-intentioned men – this relationship is one of control. Iris is controlled at first by her father, and then by her husband in a loveless arranged marriage. She has very little control over her own fate, socially or legally, until she manages to seize some in the final chapters. Even then it is a pyrrhic victory. Iris’ life, a realistic portrayal of how women lived until the last forty or fifty years, reminds one of what it was like to be a child, with no autonomy or independence.

And yet, for all this noble feminism, The Blind Assassin is fundamentally a romance no different from a Mills & Boone paperback. A dark, handsome young revolutionary comes into the sisters’ lives. They both become besotted with him. One becomes his lover, swept off her feet, hopelessly in love despite his fugitive status, his cynical attitude, his radical political views. He’s the dashing stranger your father forbids you to see, hard drinker and hard smoker, well-read and just a little wild… ooh, if only someone could tame him!

The contradiction at the heart of The Blind Assassin is either some kind of profound statement about love, or evidence that even the most uptight feminists still secretly want a handsome young man to cradle them in his burly arms and make passionate love to them. Perhaps, once you take away the style and the literary merit and the ability to string a sentence together, Margaret Atwood and Stephanie Meyers aren’t so different after all!

The Blind Assassin at The Book Depository

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April 2010