Margaret Atwood,
The Blind Assassin
(Anchor, 2001)

Craving power over people and things is one way of living. Its opposite suggests tranquility, intimacy, simplicity and happiness. Margaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin shows that choosing this second path is by no means easy, since followers of the first tend to be vigilant, ruthless and deadly.

"Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." Thus the novel begins, as does the first-person narrative of Iris Chase, who is writing from the perspective granted by old age. She tells her own story and that of her younger sister Laura, and how from a young age any chance of simplicity was banished from their lives -- first by circumstances, including world war and economic recession, and second by the intrusion of ruthless, avariciously ambitious people into their world.

The Blind Assassin is Atwood's tenth novel, and in Britain it won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction. It is unsurprising, then, that the voice of Iris, in the crankiness of wisdom and insight, is conveyed flawlessly. However, the author's ambition goes way beyond the achievement of this considerable feat -- spliced within the novel is a separate narrative, that of a science-fiction story.

It is important to note immediately that this latter story is true SF in the tradition of the pulps, and not, as might be expected in such a literary work, a fantasy with Jungian archetypes masquerading as dragons, heroes or witches. The Blind Assassin has a Chinese-box structure with chapters containing Iris' first-person narrative interspersed with those from a work of mainstream fiction written by a person featuring largely in that narrative. It is within this second fictional narrative that the SF story lies -- we listen as one of the characters, a writer of pulp SF, invents and relates a story to his ladylove about a blind assassin living in the city Sakiel-Norn on the planet Zycron.

The SF narrative is especially interesting considering that in 1986, Atwood's dystopian SF novel A Handmaid's Tale was nominated for a Nebula Award by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Although she could not be judged by any means to be a genre writer, Atwood proves herself here to be someone with a respect for and understanding of the SF genre's tropes and aspirations.

The Blind Assassin, although employing some complex stylistic manoeuvres, sticks firmly to the domain of common sense so the reader is always certain of the frame within which they are reading. This is not to deny the novel's many complexities. The concurrent narratives draw attention to the fact that Iris' story is just that, a fiction. But Iris, despite being so obviously a product of Atwood's imagination and art, convinces. In being convinced, we glimpse our own lives as a process of selection and construction -- we are forever working on our own stories as the only way to make sense, to make real, the complex journey of our lives. In the novel, we see this most plainly in those passages where the writer of pulp fiction blithely changes the story line to accommodate his lover's objections and complaints.

Like all good storytellers Margaret Atwood draws the strands of her tale together in the end, unflinchingly allowing Iris to expose us to her failings and tragedies as she relates her story of a life lived with more than its share of secrets and lies. This biographical discourse makes compulsive reading and is made more so by the constant presence throughout of a mystery whose solution allows the novel, and indeed Iris' life, achieve a good measure of tranquility and simplicity at its conclusion.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 6 April 2002

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