In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood presents her readers with a novel-within-a-novelor, more accurately, a story told within a novel within a novel. This complex interweaving of multiple narratives draws the reader forward through a dramatic and turbulent tale of love, betrayal, and death, while simultaneously using its structural puzzles to reconsider the act of storytelling itself. The effect is mesmerizing.
Atwood's novel begins as its central character, Iris Chase Griffen, recalls with a shocking calmness the afternoon of the suicide of her sister, Laura, just after the end of World War II. As quickly as we become immersed in Iris's narration, however, we are taken back out again, presented first with a newspaper account of Laura's inquest, and then with the prologue to Laura Chase's posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin. This blend of documentary materials with Iris's first-person narration continues throughout Atwood's novel, with each level of the text calling the veracity of the others into question.
Iris's narration takes the form of a memoir, written 50 years after the war, recounting the rise and fall of the Chase family fortune and relating the events that culminated in Laura's suicide and Iris's fall from grace. The Chases, a solid Canadian manufacturing clan, came to local prominence when, in the late 19th century, Iris's grandfather built a factory to produce buttons from homely materials such as wood and bone. This pragmatisma solid product, a firm but kind business ethicis useless in the face of the crises of the 20th century, however. Just as the factory is threatened with closure during the Depression, the family itself begins to disintegrate, and Iris is maneuvered into an arranged marriage to Richard Griffen, a thoroughly modern industrialist. In attempting to save her family by making this union, Iris inadvertently abandons her ethereal, vulnerable younger sister, Laura.
Laura's novel, a wildly successful and scandalously frank tale of illicit love, follows a young woman of the upper classes through her affair with a shadowy left-wing sympathizer hiding from the police. Their erotic relationship, fundamentally riven by their class differences, is cemented by a story told by the man, who supports himself by writing pulp fiction. In this story, which combines the devices of science fiction and tales of Arabian adventure, a young slave boy becomes involved in a plot to kill the king and overthrow his society's abusive class system. This boy, the blind assassin of both novels' titles, is meant to carry out this plot by killing and taking the place of a young mute girl, who is the next day to be slain by the king in the aristocracy's ritual of sacrifice.
The drama of Atwood's novel takes place in the often conflicting interplay between these multiple narratives. The blind assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden of the man's tale may be allegorical figures for the lovers of Laura's novel, who may in turn be figures for Laura herself and Alex Thomas, the radical who may have been her lover. Or they may be none of these, instead revealing some other, hidden truth about the world inhabited by the Chases and the Griffens. Similarly, the newspaper accounts of the events that take place within the novel and the historical events of the world just outside both clarify and mislead. Through these articles, the reader is led to understand the political dramas that lie beneath the novel's personal conflicts as well as the inevitably subjective nature of storytelling itself, as all of The Blind Assassin's many narratives are colored by their narrators' unspoken motives.
In this lyrical, complex, and enthralling novel, through her nuanced characters and her evocative prose, Atwood once again creates a world as compelling as that of The Handmaid's Tale. The Blind Assassin is both entertaining and intelligent, both a page-turner and a work of literature, absorbing the reader with its vividly rendered plot and characters while slyly posing difficult questions about the nature of narrative itself.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of English and media studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.