Book Review: The Blind Assassin

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date.

Time in dreams is frozen. You can never get away from where you’ve been.

One look at a banana and you can tell it came from outer space.

Margaret Atwood is an insightful genius and I think I am in love.

I love the way she sees the world and sees through it.

The way she sees people and the way she recreates them in all their complexities and colours.

The way she can perfectly articulate ideas on, well, pretty much everything – feminism (obvs), life, death, love, gender, inequality, relationship, classism, ageing, beauty, war, human nature, religion and so on and so on.

The way she makes subtle commentaries about some things… and bloody great, unapologetic, swipes at others.

The way she squeezes in little bubbles of her wit and (dry) humour.

And the way her stories and poems, her narratives and characters, are simultaneously intriguing and disturbing and challenging and beautiful.

So anyway, the book review.

Where were we? I’ve forgotten.

He was deciding whether to cut her throat or love her forever.

Right. Yes. The usual choices.

I finally read The Blind Assassin. Atwood’s 10th novel and the (unsurprising) winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. I am cursing myself for not having read it sooner. Oh my. It is masterful. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking. It is all-consuming.

The other day someone asked me: “What’s it about then?” I hesitated and stumbled. It is not easy to describe, to categorise. But I shall try:

This novel is the original Inception. A story in a story in a story. It is a romance, a sci-fi, a family drama, an historical fiction, a mystery. It’s basically everything you could want in a single novel. Best of all, it’s all wrapped up in prose so god damn exquisite that it flows like poetry and carries you through on a zephyr.

But then, as you near the end, there is a slow-reveal twist that smacks you across the head. “Wait. What?” you will say aloud. It hits you so hard that you will need to put the book down and walk away and make yourself a cup of coffee (read: pour a deep glass of wine) and just sit and think. When you finish your coffee (full-bodied merlot), you will pick the book up again and scour through it, re-reading paragraphs and whole chapters again and again, with a completely different perspective.

The story is essentially about the lives and relationship of two sisters who grow up in a wealthy Canadian family. It is set through the 1920s to 40s – times of war and Depression. The sisters have an isolated childhood (despite/because of their wealth) and in adulthood remain isolated in the narrow roles expected of rich women at the time. The elder sister, Iris, narrates the story of their lives – a journey of tragedy, romance, betrayal and ultimately, revenge. But it is about so much more than that.

But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell burst, the plummet of the car from a bridge.

There are just some things a good book can achieve that a movie never could. The Blind Assassin is a perfect example of that.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

I didn’t really like any of the characters. They were just not likeable. Not even Iris. I got incredibly frustrated at her passivity and her selfishness. She just seemed to go along with everything – life happened to her and she observed it all from without. She just kept playing her role, floating along, detached. I guess that was the whole point – she did what was expected of her and of women of her status. She was powerless and voiceless. But she was also boring – she stood for nothing. I spent the book waiting for her to stand up for herself and for Laura, and to prove herself intelligent and shrewd and angry and insightful. But she proves to be none of those things until it is far, far too late.

Upon learning of her hot romance with Alex Thomas, I was relieved that she possessed some real, fire-in-the-belly passion and that she was proactive about something. But I was also disappointed in her. I understand why she was craving the connection and the love and the adventure and all of that. But how could she let it blind her and consume her so completely? It consumed her to the point of selfishness and – arguably – to the demise of her very own sister. It’s maddening how Iris never really knows what’s really going on with Laura. And vice-versa. How could this be so? All they have is each other. In hindsight, Iris does express regret and guilt. She is haunted by some of her own actions.

But unshed tears can turn rancid. So can memory. So can biting your tongue. My bad nights were beginning. I couldn’t sleep.

(Most of) Atwood’s characters are incredibly complex. Norval Chase, for example. Injured at war and then left widowed. His pain and suffering was palpable. I hurt with him. He was so completely broken. Shattered. I could hear him thrashing and crashing around in my own attic, self-destructing. He was a good man with a good heart and he constantly tried to do what was best for his family, his workers, his fellow soldiers, his town. But ultimately he failed them all – and he couldn’t live with himself. His story really got me.

Meanwhile, Richard and Winifred were loathsome. Possibly among the most hateful characters I have ever come across. But in death, Richard’s character is somehow pitiful. We don’t really get to know him, which is regrettable. I am left wanting to know his motives, to hear his side of the story. How can anyone be so thoroughly evil?

One thing I was certainly not expecting: This book forced me face my own mortality. To really consider it – almost to the point of panic. Ageing. Dying. Death. As Iris neared the end, I too grew older. I too grew envious of youth and their youthfulness. Critical too.

The old wish the young well, but they wish them ill also: they would like to eat them up, and absorb their vitality, and remain immortal themselves. Without the protection of surliness and levity, all children would be crushed by the past – the past of others, loaded on their shoulders. Selfishness is their saving grace.

When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.

See – legit panic-inducing:

Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.

There is so, so, so much more I could say about The Blind Assassin (like: Atwood’s sci-fi and dystopian worlds are seriously: The Best. And what a clever device in this book…….). But I think I have written quite enough already. Also, I have other important stuff to do. Namely, re-read the book and build a shrine to Margaret Atwood.

TL;DR – This novel is hard to describe. It is brilliant. Atwood is brilliant. Five stars. Read it for yourself.

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