“The Blind Assassin” is a lengthy fictional biography primarily concerned with tracing the life of Iris Chase, an upper-class Canadian woman, and her sister Laura Chase. The book interweaves three interrelated stories: Iris Chase’s final days in 1999, her life from birth until the end of WWII, and a novel-within-a-novel entitled “The Blind Assassin.” This embedded novel is about a controversial romance and itself contains a story-within-a-story which is a science-fiction tale also titled “The Blind Assassin.” The book opens with the line “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Shortly after Laura dies, her novel, “The Blind Assassin” is discovered and published to great acclaim. The bulk of the book concerns the biographical details of the Iris Chase in the past and present with a gradual sense of mystery and anticipation building as the full story behind the Chase family and the opening car accident are revealed.
Atwood is a master of characterization and above all else, this is what really shines throughout the book. Iris Chase is rendered brilliantly, a fully three-dimensional, realistic character whose life appears equally tangible and marked by personality at the age of 18 as it does at the age of 80. Perhaps what is most impressive is the sense that Iris is hardly exceptional, her life has been eventful but not earth-shattering and she rarely controls her own destiny. Atwood captures the means by which a person can slip into the easy routine, always doing what they think is best and yet gradually becoming more passive and unhappy. Similarly, Laura Chase makes the perfect enigma for jaded 20th century readers, a naïve and yet somehow admirable figure quite out-of-place in the era she lives in.
Also notable is Atwood’s writing style, which tends to make some of the slower, overly long passage more palatable. Her frequent vivid use of metaphors and similes gives narration a highly literate and cunning edge with a heavy, healthy dose of cynicism.
As for the story, I found it to be realistic, fairly engaging, occasionally profound and brilliantly concluded. However the plot is really only the sugar on the cake and isn’t the reason this book should be read. Even if the reader has guessed all of the plot twists far in advance (as most readers likely will) Atwood still delivers her revelations with intensity and eloquence.
Despite advertising the science-fiction element of the book as comprising 1/3 of the story, it really amounts to less than 1/12 and it is easily the least satisfying aspect of the book. One is tempted to accuse Atwood of possessing disdain for classical science fiction but it is more likely that it is actually her characters which treat it dismissively. The novel-within-a-novel is ultimately too weak to stand on its own legs (one finds it hard to believe it was met with cult success) and it is merely relegated to its relevance with regard to the primary plot.
The other minor problem I have with the book is its fairly hefty length. Atwood seems to struggle with whether or not she is making a classical modernist novel or an experimental post-modernist novel and so lets elements of both bloat up beyond what is necessary. Despite an ever growing sense of anticipation within the last third of the book, the first two thirds are simply too lackadaisical and often dull, with plenty of well-written prose but nothing new occurring or changing.