Reviews of The Robber Bride and Alias Grace.

The Blind Assassin

by Margaret Atwood


A new novel by Margaret Atwood is a cause for celebration. The Blind Assassin is no exception to this certainty. Combining the scathing reportial accuracy of The Robber Bride with the mysterious ambiguities of Alias Grace; it is a novel subtle and dangerous as a spider web — its surface simple as water, its depths complex as the teeming, hungry sea. From an author whose eye seems, sometimes, diamond hard, it is a hard story but easy reading, plain as a walk in the wilderness.

Much has been made of the novel-within-a-novel aspect of The Blind Assassin. A friend told me the book "sounded too complicated." It's not. Let's get that out of the way first. Peeling the narrative structure, here are the layers, outermost in:

  1. At the first layer, Margaret Atwood's novel is the fictional autobiography of a Canadian woman whose life spans our century. Everything in it is part of the memoir of Iris Griffen, née Chase. Writing in her old age, she begins with the apparent suicide of her sister Laura fifty years ago. From there she backtracks to her childhood. Her memoir covers roughly a hundred years of Canadian history, and her primary topic is the reasons for her sister's death. In the memoir she embeds, as if it were a scrapbook, evidentiary artifacts: newspaper clippings, excerpts from her sister's novel, letters.
  2. Laura Chase was the author of her own posthumous memoir, in the form of a celebrated novel also called The Blind Assassin. The manuscript was found after her death and published by Iris a few years later, to become a cult classic of Canadian literature. This novel appears in excerpts, clearly identified, as chapters of Iris' memoir. This inner novel describes the love affair of a wealthy young woman and a rakish Marxist who makes his living as a writer of pulp science fictions and leaves her, eventually, to fight in the Spanish Civil War and then World War II. Laura and Iris knew such a man when they were young, Alex the labor agitator, and the story is obviously a version of the truth.
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  4. In the novel by Laura Chase, the young Marxist entertains his lover by inventing a science fiction novel about a country in which children are blinded and then trained as assassins. This story, set in a fantasy past of Oriental decadence, eventually centers on a young assassin who falls in love with his intended victim, a temple girl who has had her tongue cut out for the glory of God. He rescues her from the temple, they escape from the city, and the city is destroyed by its enemies. The stuff of fiction.
  5. At one point in the narrative, the Marxist appropriates some futurist elements, "lizard men from outer space," from his oral story and uses them in one of his published novels. This is a minor plot element but not another narrative box. The intrusive fact is repeated, however, in all the layers of the narrative, when the pulp novel is discovered in a drugstore rack.

The puzzle in Atwood's novel is much more subtle than this tiny assemblage of Russian dolls, one within another. Is the novel named for the blind assassin in the innermost story? For Laura's novel itself? For something less obvious? The mystery to be resolved is why Laura Chase chose to die, and the answer is, like so much in this great story, simple or complex, depending on how carefully you read, how much you want to know. As you move through the layers, elements of the Marxist's storytelling link to clues in Iris's narrative, details of Iris's memoir validate or contradict personal recollections in Laura's. And through it all drifts like a gar the pulp writer's blind assassin — trivial, meaningless, the key.

Iris Chase is latest of Atwood's brilliantly imagined "average" women, a papery voice from a head frizzed with the dandelion hair of old age, a woman of no consequence. A woman of ascetic life and acetic wit, sharp and bitter as old wine not yet vinegared. Iris' description of a childhood moment at her mother's deathbed is a concerto of modulated emotions — grief, confusion, anger — capped with a terrible moment of truth when she says of her mother's flickering love: "Her love for us was a given — solid and tangible, like a cake. The only question was which of us was going to get the bigger slice."

Laura was the younger, glamourous, fey sister, the artist and empath, a temple girl with no illusions about God's mercy, confined briefly to an asylum as an acknowledgment that she was not enough of this world. And, as it turns out, to curb her tongue. Iris, on the other hand, was her father's substitute boy. She is Martha to Laura's Mary, dependable and expendable, the mender of skirts and wounds, secretary and accountant. A usable commodity, destined for mousy spinsterhood, she is sold off to an industrial parvenu, her dowry a button factory. She walks in silence, her version of the story untold, all her life. And inside the mouse brain, her clear-eyed, self-deprecating ego, ferocious as a weasel. She has lived fifty years with the secret meaning of Laura's death, and her story, scribbled with unseemly haste as incapacity and death tap their feet on her stoop, sets things right by providing the squirming, twisted truth.

Which is, needless to say, not what it seems. Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel of flickering gestalt images. At the very beginning, a torn photograph tells a piece of the truth, and we learn later that there are two torn photographs, virtually identical but different in one crucial way, and we will discover that the crucial detail has been left out of that first description. At the beginning, we are told what the story is about in a few sentences the force of which, brilliant though they are, we do not until the end fully understand. At the beginning, a half dozen pieces of the puzzle, each of them identifiable, all laden with meaning but their meaning obscured by their fragmentary nature, are laid on the table. And at the end, each piece has become something else than what we anticipated; even, in some cases, its own opposite.

Like most of Atwood's work, The Blind Assassin begins with the delicate deliberation of an ocean liner and moves with the deceptive speed of a ship at sea — seeming slow until we look at the waves splitting on the bow. Atwood's oceans, however calm, are full of carnivorous gods. Iris' ready wit, her acid intolerance of her aged infirmities, the sharp tongue of her inner voice, spice the otherwise simple dish of a trivial life. And that very lifting of the mask, our recognition that mousey Iris is more than her public face, becomes a key to the mysteries.

An Atwood novel — the best of them anyway: Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace — achieves the unspeakable beauty of brilliant simplicity, the inappreciable wonder of an anonymous forest scene lambent with perfect light, composed with the seemingly random chaos of Hazard, pervaded with a sensual and emotional ambience that we will remember wordlessly. And remember inarticulate to communicate the intangible, unspeakable. I can imagine, if she were to read that sentence, Atwood's wicked squint and razor smirk and, if she said anything, the crisp judgment "Things are never as simple as they seem." That is the very beauty of her work, after all, craft not effortless but seeming effortless, like the miraculous suspension of Nureyev in a leap of Le Corsair or the silent hover of a fierce hummingbird.

Atwood's best work illuminates, like a flashlight in a dim room, the depth and breadth of simple people. She has created fictions centered on the brilliant and "artistic" few — Lady Oracle and Cat's Eye, for example. But her most powerful work explores the complexity in us all, the mundane: servants in The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace, masters in The Blind Assassin. Nowhere does she do it better than in The Robber Bride, with its Rashomon Gate of middle-class protagonists trying simply to get through their days and faced with the malignant "brilliance" they fear and admire, the rattlesnake that bit each of them in turn. Here, as we read this new novel, we will begin to wonder who the blind assassin is (I found myself referring to the book constantly as "The Blind Assassins" until I finished it). The brilliant, injured, skillful boy is, after all, very little of the story. When things and their seemings converge, questions are answered. As Iris tells us in her prologue, remembering her nurse's rote injunction when she was scratched or bumped, to calm down, stop howling and tell where it hurts: "... some people can't tell where it hurts. They can't calm down. They can't stop howling." So we take our pain inside, at last, and howl in silence. And safe in exterior calm, we begin to write.

I have posted reviews of Alias Grace and The Robber Bride. Upon publication of The Blind Assassin Atwood's publisher, Doubleday, put up a page for her which may still be available. The Random House "Reader's Companion" page for The Robber Bride has some useful interpretive materials, including a few Atwood poems and her address to the American Bookseller's Association the year the book was published.

She has her own website as well, the delightfully named Owtoad. Other good sites are The Atwood Society and Brittany Chenault's Atwood Links. I recently discovered a beautiful and comprehensive bibliography site,

If you like Margaret Atwood, you might like Louise Erdrich, a woman of Michif (Métis) heritage who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine in 1985. I have posted an annotated bibliography of her work and reviews of The Antelope Wife and her newest novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

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