The Blind Assassin

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Overview

The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to...

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Overview

The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.

Winner of the 2000 Booker Prize

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood presents her readers with a novel-within-a-novel—or, 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 pragmatism—a solid product, a firm but kind business ethic—is 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

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of English and media studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

From the Publisher
"The first great novel of the new millennium."
Newsday

"Absorbing... expertly rendered... Virtuosic storytelling [is] on display."
The New York Times

"Brilliant... Opulent... Atwood is a poet.... as well as a contriver of fiction, and scarcely a sentence of her quick, dry yet avid prose fails to do useful work, adding to a picture that becomes enormous."
—John Updike, The New Yorker

"Chilling... Lyrical... [Atwood's] most ambitious work to date."
The Boston Globe

"Hauntingly powerful.... A novel of luminous prose, scalpel-precise insights and fierce characters... Atwood's new work is so assured, so elegant and so incandescently intelligent, she casts her contemporaries in the shade."
The Atlanta Journal—Constitution

"Grand storytelling on a grand scale... Sheerly enjoyable."
The Washington Post Book World

"Bewitching... A killer novel.... Atwood's crisp wit and steely realism are reminiscent of Edith Wharton... A wonderfully complex narrative."
The Christian Science Monitor

"A tour de force."
Chicago Tribune

Bust Magazine
Read the book as storytelling of the highest order. Or, if you choose, watch for "Atwood themes"—there's plenty of feminist stuff, political observations, and philosophical questioning of life events both grand and mundane.
Laura Miller
The Blind Assassin has enough mysteries to keep even a casual reader engaged, and with respect to solutions, it is less scrupulously committed to ambiguity than Ms. Atwood's 1997 novel, Alias Grace. As with all of Ms. Atwood's recent fiction, The Blind Assassin, despite what sounds like a romantic plot, has been scoured free of any trace of sentimentality. There is a steely quality to Ms. Atwood's writing that's a bit scary but also exhilarating; no one gets away with anything, especially not her female narrators--and they know better than to try.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Family secrets, sibling rivalry, political chicanery and social unrest, promises and betrayals, "loss and regret and memory and yearning" are the themes of Atwood's brilliant new novel, whose subtitle might read: The Fall of the House of Chase. Justly praised for her ability to suggest the complexity of individual lives against the backdrop of Canadian history, Atwood here plays out a spellbinding family saga intimately affected by WWI, the Depression and Communist witch-hunts, but the final tragedy is equally the result of human frailty, greed and passion. Octogenarian narrator Iris Chase Griffen is moribund from a heart ailment as she reflects on the events following the suicide in 1945 of her fey, unworldly 25-year-old sister, Laura, and of the posthumous publication of Laura's novel, called "The Blind Assassin." Iris's voice--acerbic, irreverent, witty and cynical--is mesmerizingly immediate. When her narration gives way to conversations between two people collaborating on a science fiction novel, we assume that we are reading the genesis of Laura's tale. The voices are those of an unidentified young woman from a wealthy family and her lover, a hack writer and socialist agitator on the run from the law; the lurid fantasy they concoct between bouts of lovemaking constitutes a novel-within-a-novel. Issues of sexual obsession, political tyranny, social justice and class disparity are addressed within the potboiler SF, which features gruesome sacrifices, mutilated body parts and corrupt, barbaric leaders. Despite subtle clues, the reader is more than halfway through Atwood's tour de force before it becomes clear that things are not what they seem. Meanwhile, flashbacks illuminate the Chase family history. In addition to being psychically burdened at age nine by her mother's deathbed adjuration to take care of her younger sibling, na ve Iris at age 18 is literally sold into marriage to a ruthless 35-year-old industrialist by her father, a woolly-minded idealist who thinks more about saving the family name and protecting the workers in his button factories than his daughter's happiness. Atwood's pungent social commentary rings chords on the ways women are used by men, and how the power that wealth confers can be used as a deadly weapon. Her microscopic observation transforms details into arresting metaphors, often infused with wry, pithy humor. As she adroitly juggles three plot lines, Atwood's inventiveness achieves a tensile energy. The alternating stories never slacken the pace; on the contrary, one reads each segment breathlessly, eager to get back to the other. In sheer storytelling bravado, Atwood here surpasses even The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
Atwood's Booker Prize-winning novel, with its 1930s setting and stories within stories, is well suited to audio dramatization. O'Brien has simplified and streamlined the structure so that it jumps around in time less and makes clearer parallels between past, present and the whimsical internal novel. Some dialogue has been added, while many meditative and descriptive sections are absent, but the new words blend gracefully with Atwood's own, and her elegant style remains intact despite the omissions. Abundant sound effects make the production much richer than many audiobooks; it sometimes seems like a movie without the visuals, with chirping birds, clinking silverware and the murmur of crowds filling in the background. Music that alternates between a lovely, slightly melancholy theme and an ominous one, helps highlight the shifts from the protagonist Iris's personal history to her retelling of the novel. The skills of the cast almost make such extras unnecessary: the three women who play Iris at different ages capture her brilliant but frustrated spirit perfectly, while the actresses for her troubled younger sister, Laura, find just the right blend of dreaminess and defiance. Though in some respects this adaptation is less intricate than the rather complicated original, the condensation serves it well, making the story more tightly wound and intense in a way that should attract listeners who may be put off by Atwood's writing. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Once again, Atwood (Wilderness Tips) has written a compelling novel with many different layers of interpretation. At first glance, these tales are a collection of disjointed short stories; yet upon further examination, they are the reminiscences of an old woman named Iris, with death appearing to be the unifying thread connecting them. At the same time, these stories comprise the Chase family history, and Iris uses them to describe her life, beginning with her parents' marriage and ending with the deaths of various relatives. Margot Dionne renders an acceptable reading, but it is far from outstanding. The story-within-a-story format permits the listener to stop and start without losing his or her train of thought. The sound volume is consistent. This program will be in demand by Atwood fans; recommended for public libraries.--Laurie Selwyn, San Antonio P.L. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Michiko Kakutani
[An] absorbing new novel, of all the author's books to date, The Blind Assassin is most purely a work of entertainment — an expertly rendered Daphne du Maurieresque tale that showcases Ms. Atwood's narrative powers and her ardent love of the Gothic.
New York Times
Ron Charles
...you'll be hooked 'till the whole tragic story finally comes to rest in the most surprising place...How goofy to repeatedly interrupt this haunting novel with episodes about the Lizard Men of Xenor. And yet, what great fun this is —and how brilliantly it works to flesh out the dime-novel culture of the 1930's and to emphasize the precarious position of women.
The Christian Science Monitor
Megan Harlan
Atwood performs a spectacular literary sleight of hand, fashioning a bewitching, brilliantly layered story of how people see only what they wish to, and how terrible the consequences of not voicing the truth can be.
Entertainment Weekly
Paul Gray
Iris Chase is a brilliant addition to Atwood's roster of fascinating fictional narrators. Not only is she her story sinuously complex, but she is entertaining company. Her comments on her story are crotchety and amusing. She is also frank about her occasional evasions: "I know it's wrong, not because of what I've set down but because of what I've omitted. What isn't there has a presence, like the absence of light." This inexorable bubbling up of the unspoken makes The Blind Assassin unforgettable.
Time Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
Atwood's skillfully woven tenth novel is her most ambitious and challenging work to date, and a worthy successor to her recent triumph, Alias Grace. It tells two absorbing stories that cast an initially enigmatic, ultimately pitilessly revealing light on each other. The central one is octogenarian Iris Griffen's bitter reminiscence of her life as the privileged daughter of a prosperous Ontario family, the Chases, and later as wife to Richard Griffen, the businessman who effectively inherits and firmly directs the Chase fortunes. The counterpart story, The Blind Assassin, is a strange futuristic tale that dramatizes in unusual (faux-Oriental) fashion a nameless woman's obsession with a science-fiction writer whose imaginings blithely mirror and exploit his "power" over her. This latter tale is published as the work of Iris's younger sister Laura, whose death in a 1945 automobile accident is judged by all who knew the sisters "as close to suicide as damn is to swearing." Newspaper items reporting notable events in the lives of the Chases and Griffens over a period of more than sixty years further enrich a many-leveled, smartly paced narrative that gradually discloses the nature and root causes of Laura's unconventionality and "madness," the full extent of Richard's compulsive aggrandizement and isolationism, and the price exacted from Iris for the "convenience" of her marriage. Intermittent echoes of Forster's Howards End sound throughout this bleak saga of political, social, and gender conflict. And Atwood keeps our attention riveted by rendering her increasingly dramatic story in a fluent style distinguished by precise sensory description ("the thin, abstemious rain of early April") and thought-provoking metaphor ("Laura was flint in a nest of thistledown"). Furthermore, a bombshell of a climactic surprise (which we probably should have seen coming) lurks in the stunning final pages. Boldly imagined and brilliantly executed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385720953
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 85,410
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret  Atwood

Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto.

Biography

When Margaret Atwood announced to her friends that she wanted to be a writer, she was only 16 years old. It was Canada. It was the 1950s. No one knew what to think. Nonetheless, Atwood began her writing career as a poet. Published In 1964 while she was still a student at Harvard, her second poetry anthology, The Circle Game, was awarded the Governor General's Award, one of Canada's most esteemed literary prizes. Since then, Atwood has gone on to publish many more volumes of poetry (as well as literary criticism, essays, and short stories), but it is her novels for which she is best known.

Atwood's first foray into fiction was 1966's The Edible Woman, an arresting story about a woman who stops eating because she feels her life is consuming her. Grabbing the attention of critics, who applauded its startlingly original premise, the novel explored feminist themes Atwood has revisited time and time again during her long, prolific literary career. She is famous for strong, compelling female protagonists -- from the breast cancer survivor in Bodily Harm to the rueful artist in Cat's Eye to the fatefully intertwined sisters in her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Asassin.

Perhaps Atwood's most legendary character is Offred, the tragic "breeder" in what is arguably her most famous book, 1985's The Handmaid's Tale. Part fable, part science fiction, and part dystopian nightmare, this novel presented a harrowing vision of women's lives in an oppressive futuristic society. The Washington Post compared it (favorably) to George Orwell's iconic 1984.

As if her status as a multi-award-winning, triple-threat writer (fiction, poetry, and essays) were not enough, Atwood has also produced several children's books, including Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003) -- delicious alliterative delights that introduce a wealth of new vocabulary to young readers.

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    1. Hometown:
      Toronto, Ontario
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 18, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ottawa, Ontario
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Blind Assassin: The hard-boiled egg

What will it be, then? he says. Dinner jackets and romance, or shipwrecks on a barren coast? You can have your pick: jungles, tropical islands, mountains. Or another dimension of space—that's what I'm best at.

Another dimension of space? Oh really!

Don't scoff, it's a useful address. Anything you like can happen there. Spaceships and skin-tight uniforms, ray guns, Martians with the bodies of giant squids, that sort of thing.

You choose, she says. You're the professional. How about a desert? I've always wanted to visit one. With an oasis, of course. Some date palms might be nice. She's tearing the crust off her sandwich. She doesn't like the crusts.

Not much scope, with deserts. Not many features, unless you add some tombs. Then you could have a pack of nude women who've been dead for three thousand years, with lithe, curvaceous figures, ruby-red lips, azure hair in a foam of tumbled curls, and eyes like snake-filled pits. But I don't think I could fob those off on you. Lurid isn't your style.

You never know. I might like them.

I doubt it. They're for the huddled masses. Popular on the covers though—they'll writhe all over a fellow, they have to be beaten off with rifle butts.

Could I have another dimension of space, and also the tombs and the dead women, please?

That's a tall order, but I'll see what I can do. I could throw in some sacrificial virgins as well, with metal breastplates and silver ankle chains and diaphanous vestments. And a pack of ravening wolves, extra.

I can see you'll stop at nothing.

You want the dinner jackets instead? Cruise ships, white linen, wrist-kissing and hypocritical slop?

No. All right. Do what you think is best.

Cigarette?

She shakes her head for no. He lights his own, striking the match on his thumbnail.

You'll set fire to yourself, she says.

I never have yet.

She looks at his rolled-up shirt sleeve, white or a pale blue, then his wrist, the browner skin of his hand. He throws out radiance, it must be reflected sun. Why isn't everyone staring? Still, he's too noticeable to be out here—out in the open. There are other people around, sitting on the grass or lying on it, propped on one elbow—other picnickers, in their pale summer clothing. It's all very proper. Nevertheless she feels that the two of them are alone; as if the apple tree they're sitting under is not a tree but a tent; as if there's a line drawn around them with chalk. Inside this line, they're invisible.

Space it is, then, he says. With tombs and virgins and wolves—but on the instalment plan. Agreed?

The instalment plan?

You know, like furniture.

She laughs.

No, I'm serious. You can't skimp, it might take days. We'll have to meet again.

She hesitates. All right, she says. If I can. If I can arrange it.

Good, he says. Now I have to think. He keeps his voice casual. Too much urgency might put her off.

On the Planet of—let's see. Not Saturn, it's too close. On the Planet Zycron, located in another dimension of space, there's a rubble-strewn plain. To the north is the ocean, which is violet in colour. To the west is a range of mountains, said to be roamed after sunset by the voracious undead female inhabitants of the crumbling tombs located there. You see, I've put the tombs in right off the bat.

That's very conscientious of you, she says.

I stick to my bargains. To the south is a burning waste of sand, and to the east are several steep valleys that might once have been rivers.

I suppose there are canals, like Mars?

Oh, canals, and all sorts of things. Abundant traces of an ancient and once highly developed civilization, though this region is now only sparsely inhabited by roaming bands of primitive nomads. In the middle of the plain is a large mound of stones. The land around is arid, with a few scrubby bushes. Not exactly a desert, but close enough. Is there a cheese sandwich left?

She rummages in the paper bag. No, she says, but there's a hard-boiled egg. She's never been this happy before. Everything is fresh again, still to be enacted.

Just what the doctor ordered, he says. A bottle of lemonade, a hard-boiled egg, and Thou. He rolls the egg between his palms, cracking the shell, then peeling it away. She watches his mouth, the jaw, the teeth.

Beside me singing in the public park, she says. Here's the salt for it.

Thanks. You remembered everything.

This arid plain isn't claimed by anyone, he continues. Or rather it's claimed by five different tribes, none strong enough to annihilate the others. All of them wander past this stone heap from time to time, herding their thulks—blue sheep-like creatures with vicious tempers—or transporting merchandise of little value on their pack animals, a sort of three-eyed camel.

The pile of stones is called, in their various languages, The Haunt of Flying Snakes, The Heap of Rubble, The Abode of Howling Mothers, The Door of Oblivion, and The Pit of Gnawed Bones. Each tribe tells a similar story about it. Underneath the rocks, they say, a king is buried—a king without a name. Not only the king, but the remains of the magnificent city this king once ruled. The city was destroyed in a battle, and the king was captured and hanged from a date palm as a sign of triumph. At moonrise he was cut down and buried, and the stones were piled up to mark the spot. As for the other inhabitants of the city, they were all killed. Butchered—men, women, children, babies, even the animals. Put to the sword, hacked to pieces. No living thing was spared.

That's horrible.

Stick a shovel into the ground almost anywhere and some horrible thing or other will come to light. Good for the trade, we thrive on bones; without them there'd be no stories. Any more lemonade?

No, she says. We've drunk it all up. Go on.

The real name of the city was erased from memory by the conquerors, and this is why—say the taletellers—the place is now known only by the name of its own destruction. The pile of stones thus marks both an act of deliberate remembrance, and an act of deliberate forgetting. They're fond of paradox in that region. Each of the five tribes claims to have been the victorious attacker. Each recalls the slaughter with relish. Each believes it was ordained by their own god as righteous vengeance, because of the unholy practices carried on in the city. Evil must be cleansed with blood, they say. On that day the blood ran like water, so afterwards it must have been very clean.

Every herdsman or merchant who passes adds a stone to the heap. It's an old custom—you do it in remembrance of the dead, your own dead—but since no one knows who the dead under the pile of stones really were, they all leave their stones on the off chance. They'll get around it by telling you that what happened there must have been the will of their god, and thus by leaving a stone they are honouring this will.

There's also a story that claims the city wasn't really destroyed at all. Instead, through a charm known only to the King, the city and its inhabitants were whisked away and replaced by phantoms of themselves, and it was only these phantoms that were burnt and slaughtered. The real city was shrunk very small and placed in a cave beneath the great heap of stones. Everything that was once there is there still, including the palaces and the gardens filled with trees and flowers; including the people, no bigger than ants, but going about their lives as before—wearing their tiny clothes, giving their tiny banquets, telling their tiny stories, singing their tiny songs.

The King knows what's happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don't know. They don't know they've become so small. They don't know they're supposed to be dead. They don't even know they've been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it's the sun.

The leaves of the apple tree rustle. She looks up at the sky, then at her watch. I'm cold, she says. I'm also late. Could you dispose of the evidence? She gathers eggshells, twists up wax paper.

No hurry, surely? It's not cold here.

There's a breeze coming through from the water, she says. The wind must have changed. She leans forward, moving to stand up.

Don't go yet, he says, too quickly.

I have to. They'll be looking for me. If I'm overdue, they'll want to know where I've been.

She smoothes her skirt down, wraps her arms around herself, turns away, the small green apples watching her like eyes.

The Globe and Mail, June 4, 1947

GRIFFEN FOUND IN SAILBOAT

special to the globe and mail

After an unexplained absence of several days, the body of industrialist Richard E. Griffen, forty-seven, said to have been favoured for the Progressive Conservative candidacy in the Toronto riding of St. David's, was discovered near his summer residence of "Avilion" in Port Ticonderoga, where he was vacationing. Mr. Griffen was found in his sailboat, the Water Nixie, which was tied up at his private jetty on the Jogues River. He had apparently suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Police report that no foul play is suspected.

Mr. Griffen had a distinguished career as the head of a commercial empire that embraced many areas including textiles, garments and light manufacturing, and was commended for his efforts in supplying Allied troops with uniform parts and weapons components during the war. He was a frequent guest at the influential gatherings held at the Pugwash home of industrialist Cyrus Eaton and a leading figure of both the Empire Club and the Granite Club. He was a keen golfer and a well-known figure at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. The Prime Minister, reached by telephone at his private estate of "Kingsmere," commented, "Mr. Griffen was one of this country's most able men. His loss will be deeply felt."

Mr. Griffen was the brother-in-law of the late Laura Chase, who made her posthumous debut as a novelist this spring, and is survived by his sister Mrs. Winifred (Griffen) Prior, the noted socialite, and by his wife, Mrs. Iris (Chase) Griffen, as well as by his ten-year-old daughter Aimee. The funeral will be held in Toronto at the Church of St. Simon the Apostle on Wednesday.

The Blind Assassin: The park bench

Why were there people, on Zycron? I mean human beings like us. If it's another dimension of space, shouldn't the inhabitants have been talking lizards or something?

Only in the pulps, he says. That's all made up. In reality it was like this: Earth was colonized by the Zycronites, who developed the ability to travel from one space dimension to another at a period several millennia after the epoch of which we speak. They arrived here eight thousand years ago. They brought a lot of plant seeds with them, which is why we have apples and oranges, not to mention bananas—one look at a banana and you can tell it came from outer space. They also brought animals—horses and dogs and goats and so on. They were the builders of Atlantis. Then they blew themselves up through being too clever. We're descended from the stragglers.

Oh, she says. So that explains it. How very convenient for you.

It'll do in a pinch. As for the other peculiarities of Zycron, it has seven seas, five moons, and three suns, of varying strengths and colours.

What colours? Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry?

You aren't taking me seriously.

I'm sorry. She tilts her head towards him. Now I'm listening. See?

He says: Before its destruction, the city—let's call it by its former name, Sakiel-Norn, roughly translatable as The Pearl of Destiny—was said to have been the wonder of the world. Even those who claim their ancestors obliterated it take great pleasure in describing its beauty. Natural springs had been made to flow through the carved fountains in the tiled courtyards and gardens of its numerous palaces. Flowers abounded, and the air was filled with singing birds. There were lush plains nearby where herds of fat gnarr grazed, and orchards and groves and forests of tall trees that had not yet been cut down by merchants or burned by spiteful enemies. The dry ravines were rivers then; canals leading from them irrigated the fields around the city, and the soil was so rich the heads of grain were said to have measured three inches across.

The aristocrats of Sakiel-Norn were called the Snilfards. They were skilled metalworkers and inventors of ingenious mechanical devices, the secrets of which they carefully guarded. By this period they had invented the clock, the crossbow, and the hand pump, though they had not yet got so far as the internal combustion engine and still used animals for transport.

The male Snilfards wore masks of woven platinum, which moved as the skin of their faces moved, but which served to hide their true emotions. The women veiled their faces in a silk-like cloth made from the cocoon of the chaz moth. It was punishable by death to cover your face if you were not a Snilfard, since imperviousness and subterfuge were reserved for the nobility. The Snilfards dressed luxuriously and were connoisseurs of music, and played on various instruments to display their taste and skill. They indulged in court intrigues, held magnificent feasts, and fell elaborately in love with one another's wives. Duels were fought over these affairs, though it was more acceptable in a husband to pretend not to know.

The smallholders, serfs, and slaves were called the Ygnirods. They wore shabby grey tunics with one shoulder bare, and one breast as well for the women, who were—needless to say—fair game for the Snilfard men. The Ygnirods were resentful of their lot in life, but concealed this with a pretense of stupidity. Once in a while they would stage a revolt, which would then be ruthlessly suppressed. The lowest among them were slaves, who could be bought and traded and also killed at will. They were prohibited by law from reading, but had secret codes that they scratched in the dirt with stones. The Snilfards harnessed them to ploughs.

If a Snilfard should become bankrupt, he might be demoted to an Ygnirod. Or he might avoid such a fate by selling his wife or children in order to redeem his debt. It was much rarer for an Ygnirod to achieve the status of Snilfard, since the way up is usually more arduous than the way down: even if he were able to amass the necessary cash and acquire a Snilfard bride for himself or his son, a certain amount of bribery was involved, and it might be some time before he was accepted by Snilfard society.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Laura and Iris spend their childhood in Avilion, "a merchant's palace," and, like princesses in a fairy tale, are virtually untouched by the outside world. What other elements reinforce the fairy-tale-like quality of their lives? What role does Alex Thomas play within this context? Does Iris's depiction of her life as an old woman also draw on the conventions of fairy tales?

2. How accurate is Iris's declaration, "Long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism. I prefer to be upright and contained—an urn in daylight" [p. 43]? How was this "choice" affected by the distinctions Iris and Laura's parents made between the two girls when they were children? What incidents show that Iris has ambiguous feelings about the roles she and Laura assume as children? What signs are there that Iris has a romantic side she keeps hidden from the adults? What cost does this exact?

3. Throughout her life, Laura is considered a special, unusual person, more sensitive than most. How does Laura exploit the impression she makes on other people? Are her motives and intentions always as innocent as people assume? Iris says, "[Laura's] cruelties were accidental— by-products of whatever lofty notions may have been going through her head" [p. 301]. How does the language Iris uses shed light on the complicated emotions Laura stirs up in her?

4. Regarding her father's role in arranging her marriage, Iris writes, "He was only doing what would have been considered—was considered, then—the responsible thing. He was doing the best he knew how" [p. 227]. In light of Norval's character and his previous treatment of Iris, is this explanation too facile? Was he motivated by reasons Iris doesn't allow herself to acknowledge?

5. Is Iris purely a pawn in a plan conceived by the men, or does she have reasons of her own for agreeing to marry Richard? In what ways does the marriage fulfill Iris's conception of herself and her approach to life?

6. Iris comes under the influence of three very different women in the course of the novel: Reenie, Callie Fitzsimmons, and Winifred Griffen Prior. How does each of these women affect Iris's view of herself—and of womanhood in general? How do their lives and attitudes represent the social environment and class structure of the times?

7. Several childhood experiences foreshadow Laura's ultimate fate, including her plunge into the river [p. 151] and her accusation that Mr. Erskine sexually molested her [p. 165]. What do these incidents indicate about Laura's personality? To what extent is she shaped by circumstances beyond her control?

8. Is Iris responsible for Laura's death? At what points could she have changed the course of events?

9. How do the newspaper articles advance the unfolding of the plot? Do they serve as an objective record of the events in the characters' lives?

10. How does the science fiction story constructed by the unnamed lovers mirror the story of the lovers themselves and the circumstances surrounding their affair? In what ways does it parallel events in Iris's life, both as a child and as an adult?

11. Atwood has said that the form of The Blind Assassin was influenced by early twentieth-century collages, in which newspaper excerpts were glued onto canvas and then painted around and over—thus framing two ways of representing reality, each of which contradicted the other but also complemented it. How many "kinds" of writing are in The Blind Assassin, washroom graffiti included? What purpose does each form of writing serve?

12. The era of the Great Depression was also an age of extreme fashion-consciousness among the wealthy. What role do clothes play in The Blind Assassin, in both the historical and the contemporary sections of the book? What do they reveal about the characters, and what do they conceal?

13. What are the various meanings of the title The Blind Assassin? Which characters act as blind assassins by uncomprehendingly causing the demise of other characters?

14. How do the multiple levels of The Blind Assassin interact with one another? Do they unfold in concert, shedding light on one another, or is the relationship among them only apparent at the end of the book? What does the use of this narrative technique reveal about Atwood's methods of storytelling?

15. If you have read other books by Atwood (particularly The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye), how does The Blind Assassin echo and extend themes she has previously explored? What new themes are developed?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 153 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(80)

4 Star

(38)

3 Star

(19)

2 Star

(10)

1 Star

(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 153 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Beguiling to the last sentence

    This book sat on my shelf for several months before I had the courage to read Atwood's best work. Blind Assassin is for the serious or the literary reader. And, very quickly we are thrown into a novel w/in the novel. The name? Blind Assassin written by Laura chase and published posthumously after her death in 1945 by her sister, Iris.

    Iris discovers: "Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I've found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them."

    Did Laura purposely drive off that bridge? Do Iris' relationships to her father, much older husband, Alex, and even to Laura die in that car as well. Which sister is Laura writing about in her novel? And whom is the male lover in Blind Assassin that tells fantastical Sci Fi stories. Are they actually parables lifted from Laura and Iris' life to explain or justify each girl's choices? Or they something else, still yet defining Laura and Iris?

    Atwood never yields to cynicism, or contempt for her characters. The result; a rich world of layered truths and lies of Laura and Iris. Atwood uses Iris to tell their story, define their relationships-all of them-to understand the dead and finally lay them to Rest in Peace. Thus Iris is revealed, and finally at peace with her life-warts and all, in the Autumn of her own life.
    This book deserves more stars than this rating and the time it takes to read this wonderful story. I was very dissapointed that I had come to the last word. This marvelous book is a gem of an addition to my book collection and hopefully to yours.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2003

    Award-winning tedium

    My colleagues in public libraries often write emphatic articles about the importance of getting the public to read Serious Modern Fiction (SMF). I envision some of them marching people to the shelves at gunpoint. Never having been a big fan of SMF, for the last few years, I have been attending library book clubs and independently pursuing a program of reading classics. Blind Assassin, the fourth and worst Margaret Atwood novel that I have read has convinced me that I have been wasting my time. From now on I¿m sticking to my usual nonfiction with a leavening of mysteries and fantasies. Genre fiction is often decried as being ¿formulaic¿. And Blind Assassin isn¿t? The little motherless mites with the faithful maid and the distant father; the doomed sibling; the nasty upper-class husband vs the lower-class lover; the hollow proprieties of an older time; the tackiness of modern life, etc. Of course, Atwood has a gimmick that apparently dazzled the critics. You¿ve heard of the story-within-a-story, and you¿ve heard of the alternating narratives ¿ well this baby has TWO stories-within-stories as alternating narratives!!! But, wait! There¿s more ¿ a third narrative consisting mostly of newspapers clippings that parallels one of the narratives!!! Wow, how could you dare to ask for an interesting plot or well-developed characters?! These kind of narrative tricks are marvelous if they create an effect that can¿t be handled in a straightforward narrative, but otherwise it¿s like the competition to write the longest sentence in English: sure it takes some cleverness to think up an additional clause that hasn¿t been used, but is the result worth reading? In my opinion, a novel is either an involving narrative that creates a world that¿s completely real as long as one is reading ¿ or the author should do nonfiction. The book could have been vastly improved by eliminating about 190 of the first 200 pages. The narrative, which is supposed to be a memoir, contains entirely too much detail; it reminds me of a total stranger latching onto someone in a public place to drone on about themselves. Worse, all the detail is lavished upon insignificant things like ambient dog feces or styrofoam cups. The engine of much of the plot is the strong feelings that Alex Thomas inspires in the Chase sisters, but he¿s a such a shadowy figure that I can¿t imagine what they see in him nor do I have any feeling for him (or any other character). We know that he was a war orphan raised by a Presbyterian minister, he¿s a leftist of some sort, he writes science-fiction short stories, he fought in the Spanish Civil War and died in World War II. What little we experience of his personality, which is recounted by a sexual partner (lover would be too euphemistic and sentimental), seems pretty abrasive and obnoxious. I can¿t imagine that Iris¿ memoir would have much effect on her long-estranged granddaughter, assuming Sabrina had the patience to plow through it: Sabrina and her mother rank well below bathroom grafitti in importance. Atwood attempts to pour on the pathos in the last couple of pages, but since Iris doesn¿t appear to have noticed her daughter between her birth and the age of eight, bathos is more like it.

    4 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 11, 2010

    A complex masterpiece!

    I thought that challenging reading was for school... the boring stuff. But Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin" was a twisted, complex novel that features a story within a story that requires your undivided attention!
    The first line of the book is "On the day after the war ended, my sister drove her car off a bridge." That caught my attention for sure! The narrator, Iris Chase Griffen, narrates the story, telling the tale of her life currently, as well as recounting her early childhood and all of its trials. That's only 2 parts of the story to follow. The 3rd part, which is perhaps the hardest to grasp, is a story that the narrator's sister, Laura Chase (the one the first sentence refers to) has supposedly written before her early death and has been published posthumously by Iris called "The Blind Assassin". The 3 stories weave together in an intricately complex, but rewarding way. Every three or four chapters, the story will switch from Iris's narrative to "The Blind Assassin." Carefully attention is needed to see how small details relate between the two settings, because therein lies the beauty and uniqueness of this work of art.
    I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a challenge and is sick of the same ol' same ol' story. But make sure you are ready to think, think, think!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2011

    A True Literarily Marvel

    The Blind Assasin was a unique experience of alternating atmospheres, impeccible detail, and insightful perspective from the accounts of the main character, Iris, and her take on everyone, and everything, around her.
    From the blend of cynisism to the intermixed events of a capricic life, Iris' memoirs, which compose the story, are a force to be reckoned with. Her story is most notable in that it is definitely one with regret and revenge, and an undeniable thirst for change. Meanwhile, the task of unconvering the identity behind the mysterious man and woman in "The Blind Assasin" chapters leaves you speculating til the very end.
    I honestly can say I've never read anything like this before. Atwood's style and composition is anomalous, and utterly unmatchable. She brings a new flavor to the realms of the literary world, and has done justice in her experimentation with the conventional novel.
    Moreso than her style, the turn of events in Iris' story are most surprising; two suicides, marriage into a twisted family and the loss of one's true identity make this a heartfelt read. I was transplanted into the setting of each memory as it was being written down by Iris, and felt and saw every blinding detail, the prescence the type of man Richard was, and how supressed Iris felt; eye awakening to say the least.
    When she recounts her sister Laura, a whole other level of complexity and understanding is added to the novel--bringing her full, enigmatic, unconventional personality and its influence--to the story. Yet overall, the best part was not unconvering the mysterious identities and coming to the definitely unexpected conclustion so much as it was growing and empathyzing with each of the characters along the way. It unreal how many questions one's memories can evoke in a person, causing them to question their society and everyone around them.
    I would most definitely reccomend this book for anyone up for a twisted, enconventional journey of living vicariously through someone else, and anyone looking to be humored by the highly descriptive, sometimes nonsensical, abstract details and opinions of the Author via the main character of the book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 23, 2011

    I've never read anything like this.

    This book is so very different. It's got 3 stories going on all at once. It kept me wanting to find out what happens next. My first read by Margaret Atwood. This was excellent, I'll have to check out her other books.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Unique and Gripping Story, Never Finished a Book Faster

    One of my favorite books of all time. The mystery of the plot is revealed in the unraveling of the past as the main character transforms from a young girl floating through life to a strong woman in firm possession of her identity. This novel is about the heartache and culpability of our inaction when the things we are not strong enough to see or realize are suddenly as stark as the death of a loved one. The heroine is anything but perfect. She makes mistakes that ultimately lead to unhappiness but in owning up to them and fighting, the reader both forgives and admires her. This story is unique, fast paced and well-written. Even if the plot doesn't strike you as something you would be interested in, I recommend it for sheer literary value.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2013

    the book by margaret atwood is a splendid creation of fiction an

    the book by margaret atwood is a splendid creation of fiction and the imagination that people can conjure up in their minds.........the book is relly an interesting book and teaches us alot of messages and advices that we can learn from...........................................

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2012

    Beautiful

    Not having read one of Margaret Atwood's books before, I was not sure what to expect. What a rich and textured story awaited me. A novel within a novel within a mystery within a love story. Once I got the rhythm of the story, I was hooked.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 11, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommend

    What a wonderful surprise this book was to me. It was quite a feat by the author to weave so many types of writing into one novel. Historical fiction, prose, poetry and science fiction. Sometimes, I found it challenging to realize whose story was being told. This book had so many fascinating layers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2000

    Big time disappointed

    After reading Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' which I thought was a masterpiece, I was really looking forward to this one. I was greatly disappointed. I found the' novel within a novel' to be really just a gimic and unnecessary to move the story along. The 'mystery' wasn't much of one at all ( I figured it out early on in the book ). Atwood is still a great writer and I hope she rebounds from this effort. If you haven't read 'The Handmaid's Tale' do yourself a favor and read it. Now that was a great book!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 22, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Enjoyable

    I enjoyed this story. Never read a Margaret Atwood book and this was a good place to start.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2013

    My all-time favorite

    Genius.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2013

    Love Margaret Atwood.

    Love Margaret Atwood.

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  • Posted March 8, 2013

    A favorite

    This is one of my favorite books of all time. Reality and sci fi both in one book, and full of great characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2013

    Beautiful

    My favorite Atwood novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2012

    This is an engrossing read...

    Margaret Atwood composes a skillfully layered narrative that leaps back and forth through time. The protagonist gradually and poignantly reveals herself as she reconstructs her family and personal history through flashback. The larger narrative employs several consistent and entertaining devices to help the protagonist along, and by the end you feel as though you've glimpsed an entire life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2012

    Amazing

    Beautiful, brilliant writing. Storytelling at its most magical.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2012

    Best of Atwood...

    Engaging read...loved it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2012

    My absolute favorite book.

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  • Posted July 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Amazing Read

    I highly recommend this book! This book quickly became a favorite.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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