Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book I have read in recent times with the structure of an elderly lady telling her story before she dies. The other was on Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry. That book was a disappointment for me, compared to my passion for the other Barry books I have read over the years.  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood strikes me as an exceptional book, I guess they don't hand out the Booker Prize for nothing (winner 2000).

As mentioned, The Blind Assassin is told by an elderly lady,Iris, as she is dying of a failing heart, perhaps in more than one sense. It is the story of two sisters, and Iris opens her story with the suicide of her younger sister Laura just after the end of WWII. Events leading up to Laura's suicide provide the thrust for the rest of the novel.

For me, part of my enjoyment of the story is in the complex narrative structure. When executed poorly, this passing from the present to the past in historical fiction, is often tedious and confusing. Margaret Atwood however, knows what she is doing. The novel is over 600 pages long and completely compelling from beginning to end. I am sure it could have all gone horribly wrong, as there are several narrative streams to the story, some told in the first person from Iris's point of view and the pivotal romantic stream cleverly told in the third person, from two points of view. It is marvellous and fascinating and all merges together beautifully in the end.

The only other novel I have read by Atwood is The Handmaid's Tale. I admired Atwood's writing in the Handmaid's Tale, but found the material too oppressive to really enjoy. In both books, Atwood's creative genius is obvious. She combines simple everyday detail with the most extraordinary imaginative worlds like no one else I can think of. China Mieville does this, but the enjoyment of his books is largely from extraordinary environments he creates, for Atwood, the outer worlds are secondary to the turmoil going on in her protagonist's head.

The themes covered in the book are many, and a couple of them are shared with The Handmaid's tale: power and class; and the position of women in society. It is a story about guilt and the cost of "turning a blind eye". There is nothing especially joyful about Atwood's stories, she explores our darker motives. But so do all of the best novels don't you think?We are moved by tragedy. I do believe that The Blind Assassin would appeal to more readers than the strange world of The Handmaid's Tale.

What do you think of Atwood's work? Do you have a favourite Atwood novel?


  1. THIS is my favorite Atwood novel. In fact it is the novel that completely changed my mind about Margaret Atwood. Used to hate her, now I adore her. Classic book!

  2. I'm an Atwood fan back dating back to my first reading of The Handmaid's Tale. But my favourite is Alias Grace. Fictionalised history at its best.


Comments are very welcome.