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The Blind Assassin.

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood. New York: Doubleday, 2000

The Blind Assassin, by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is like a funhouse hall of mirrors--full of strange twists, false leads, misleading reflections, and labyrinthine trails that weave in and out of one another in the most intriguing way.

Shortly after the close of World War II Laura Chase, the younger daughter of a formerly prominent Canadian family, drives her sister's car off a bridge. Iris Chase Griffen, Laura's older sister and widow of the wealthy industrialist Richard Griffen, narrates the circumstances that led up to Laura's death in a memoir destined for her estranged granddaughter, Sabrina. In addition, Iris reproduces The Blind Assassin, a novel supposedly written by Laura but actually authored by someone else. (To tell who would spoil the fun.)

Granddaughters of Benjamin Chase, an entrepreneur who made his fortune in buttons and undergarments, Laura and Iris grow up at Avilion, the ancestral home. Benjamin loses two sons in World War I. The third, Norval, inherits Benjamin's thriving business and elegant estate. He marries a fragile society gift who, after producing two daughters, dies in childbirth. Ignored by their father and educated sporadically by incompetent or tyrannical tutors, Iris and Laura learn to rely largely on their own devices. The good-hearted but class-conscious housekeeper Reenie makes sure they maintain a degree of social decorum, but as the girls mature, they grow increasingly devious.

At a company picnic Laura and Iris, still adolescents, meet Alex Thomas, a smooth outsider, who turns out to be a union agitator. These are the years of the Great Depression, and labor unrest is rampant. When the button factory is besieged and nearly burned down, Alex is a prime suspect. The police are after him, but nobody suspects that Laura and Iris are harboring him in their attic at Avilion. Eventually, he flees Canada for Spain to fight in the Civil War. The Blind Assassin, the novel within the novel, relates in detail Laura's sordid affair with Alex. But less evident is the fact that, Iris has been sleeping with him, too.

Depressed by the failure of his business and the betrayal of workers he considered practically kin, Norval marries Iris off to his business rival, Richard Griffen, then quietly drinks himself to death. Richard and his sister, Winifred, adorn the eighteen-year-old Iris in the latest fashions and attempt to transform her into a society matron, while sending Laura off to a chic private school. But instead of attending classes, Laura escapes in the afternoon to sleep with Richard--a sort of religious penance, as she sees it, to guarantee Alex's safe return from the front. (World War II has broken out.) As a result, Laura becomes pregnant with Richard's baby just after Iris, who is desperately unhappy with her shallow, ambitious husband, has Alex's. The disastrous outcome of these unsavory liaisons hurls the novel to its riveting conclusion.

As in her other books, Atwood explores the dark side of the psyche in The Blind Assassin. Throughout the novel she juxtaposes images of refinement and brutality; splendid garden parties, elaborate cruises, and Latin poetry alternate with the carnage of war, labor violence, and murder. Underneath Iris's Paris fashions, her body bears braises inflicted by Richard. On the grounds of the fancy mental hospital to which Laura is committed, the carcasses of aborted babies lie rotting in hidden graves. The book supposedly written by Laura relates Alex's musings on a science fiction novel he intends to write--the story of children forced to weave intricate carpets until they go blind, at which time they are trained as expert assassins, capable of stealthily entering a room and dispatching a victim. The blind force of evil lurks everywhere in Atwood's novel; we are all potential blind assassins.

But the most heartless assassin is time. Atwood is obsessed with time. In Iris's account of the sisters' early life, in her meticulous account of her own physical decay, in the story of Alex and Laura in the novel within the novel, we feel time pass. Month follows month, season follows season. The descriptions of fading photographs and of imperfectly remembered events attest to humans' yearning to retrieve the past, to conquer time. For a while, Laura works as a photographer's assistant; Norval's girlfriend Callie is a painter. Pictures are an attempt to capture and fix time. But Laura alters the photographic images to her liking, while Callie portrays the world not as she sees it, but as her political ideals cause her to envision it. Iris, for her part, re-creates the past through words--that is, through the memoir she leaves for her granddaughter--but it is possible that she, too, alters the images. Her hesitance about the accuracy of her account stems from her realization that we cannot recover the past intact and untouched. Descriptions of the decaying Avilion and the elderly Iris's medical problems attest to time's destructive power. Iris's astonishment at the changes in her community--the multiethnic population, the proliferation of fast food, the blue jeans--illustrates the inevitability of change.

The power of art to reconstitute bygone realities and to create new ones is one of Atwood's central themes. As Laura and Alex lie in bed, they invent the stow line of Alex's planned novel. He proposes gruesome twists that reflect the subconscious's murky core. She opts for happy endings. Both he and Iris comment on the writer's craft.

Given this awareness, it is not surprising that Atwood uses language so deftly. Her metaphors are often astonishing in the way they join together unrelated notions. Yet they never seem intrusive or contrived. And in spite of her intricate plot, her prose flows effortlessly. The Blind Assassin is a brilliant and beautiful novel, a veritable tour de force.

Critic, novelist, and short story writer, Barbara Mujica is a professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University. Her latest book, Frida, is newly published by Overlook Press.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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