The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

2000. Doubleday. Hardcover. 521 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation by: She of A Book Blog. Period.

In a nutshell:

The Blind Assassin is at its core the story of Iris Chase and her sister Laura, told mostly from the perspective of Iris in her old age.  The Chase sisters were born into a family made wealthy by the success of button factories.  The story particularly focuses on a period of time in the 1930’s, shortly before and after Iris’ marriage to the successful older businessman and aspiring politician, Richard Griffen.  Iris’ memories are framed by her musings on being old and on change.  The story of the Chase sisters is interwoven with newspaper clippings and also with chapters from a small novella called The Blind Assassin, written by Laura Chase.


The Blind Assassin is an ambitious book, with all of its plot strands.  The strands are certainly connected but at first the connections are small – a shared detail, a turn of phrase – until the reader has figured out the bigger picture.  One can figure out much of the mysteries of the story before they are explicitly spelled out, but the final illumination remains necessary.

The main mystery of the novel (and this is not a spoiler) is why did Laura commit suicide?  Readers know from the beginning that she was 25 when she drove off an embankment and died, and so as the flashbacks lead up to that point, we gather more information as to the reasons behind her act.

The Blind Assassin is not a happy book.  As children, Iris and Laura are ill-educated by a parade of incompetent or worse tutors brought in by their father.  Iris marries while still quite young and is manipulated into compliance by her husband and his sister-in-law Winifred.  (The characterization of Winifred is extremely well-done.)  Laura is a questioner and a rebel, but events and people work to break her spirit.  The sisters have one short period where they are unified in purpose, but for most of their lives, they completely fail to understand each other.  There is a pervasive feeling of isolation. Closing the book, I felt perturbed and heavy in my mind.

In She’s review of The Blind Assassin, she intriguingly had said that The Blind Assassin struck her as a more adult version of I Capture the Castle.  She couldn’t quite put her finger on why.  I can see why that comparison might come up, especially in the flashbacks of Iris’ pre-marriage days: two temperamentally different sisters, dwindling resources but a big house, a father who locks himself away from the family, an artist step-mother figure.  But the comparison that jumps more readily to my mind as I’m writing this review is actually Atonement.  In telling the story of herself and her sister, Iris is seeking redemption for mistakes made while young.

Iris rejects the beatification that her sister has received by fans of Laura’s book.  I wasn’t sure if the novel was also trying to paint Laura as a ‘better’ person than Iris, but I don’t think so.  Sure, Laura has her eyes more open than Iris and is more independent, but I didn’t like her all that much, even when I knew her whole story.

This is the first book I’ve read by Atwood and I really did like her writing as it was exquisite.  Sometimes I can be annoyed by placidly pretty writing, but Atwood’s style is beautiful without being inert:

The leaves of the maples hang from their branches like limp gloves; on the sidewalk my shadow crackles.

p. 83

I said earlier that I particularly admired Atwood’s characterization of Iris’ sister-in-law Winifred.  Here is an excerpt about Winifred:

“Call me Freddie,” she said after I’d sat down. “All my chums do, and I want us to be great chums.” It was the fashion then for women like Winifred to favour diminutives that made them sound like youths: Billie, Bobbie, Willie, Charlie. I had no such nickname, so could not offer one in return.

“Oh, is that the ring?” she said. “It is a beauty, isn’t it? I helped Richard pick it out – he likes me to go shopping for him. It does give men such migraines, doesn’t it, shopping? He thought perhaps an emerald, but there’s really nothing like a diamond, is there?”

While saying this she examined me with interest and a certain chilly amusement, to see how I would take it – this reduction of my engagement ring to a minor errand.

. . . .

(She was a card player, I discovered later.  Bridge, not poker – she would have been good at poker, good at bluffing, but it was too risky, too much a gamble; she liked to bid on known quantities.)

p. 231

For all the skill evident in The Blind Assassin, it’s not a book that makes me rapturous.  It was not a book I took to my heart.  Still, I’m glad to have finally introduced myself to Atwood’s excellent writing.

Others’ reviews:

an adventure in reading – “I can see why this story was written how it was, and it is very ambitious and well done, but overall, it didn’t resonate with me. I felt too detatched from the characters since Iris herself wasn’t very aware for much of her life.”

Evening All Afternoon – “Atwood’s feminist passion is still here, but it’s incorporated more smoothly and less didactically than in either of her other novels I’ve read, and is just one part of a seamless, enthralling story.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Iris is, I think, one of my favorite fictional narrators of all time. She’s crotchety while still vulnerable, quick-witted even though her body is starting to fail her, and desperate to atone for mistakes the reader isn’t sure she has even made.”


Filed under Book Review

7 responses to “The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

  1. This is the first book I’ve read by Atwood and I really did like her writing as it was exquisite. Sometimes I can be annoyed by placidly pretty writing, but Atwood’s style is beautiful without being inert…

    What a fantastic way to put Atwood’s lovely writing.

  2. She

    I agree with your final thoughts as it was most definitely a fantastically written book with an interesting story, but it was a bit meandering and not quite read-me-right-now-or-you-will-never-sleep-again-because-you’ll-be-thinking-about-reading-me-instead-of-actually-reading-me. If that makes sense.

    Thanks for the links! Also, I would definitely suggest to try some of Atwood’s dystopian. I’ve found that I am much more of a lover of the dystopians rather than her more real life books. I’d recommend Oryx and Crake and subsequently The Year of the Flood. It’s super interesting and much more rapturous. It’s what made me love her.

  3. I’m glad you liked the book, for the most part, even if it didn’t hit the heart. This was one of my favorite books books last year.

  4. Lit Omnivore – Thanks!
    She – Thanks for the recommendations! I think I will try one of her dystopian books next.
    Kim – As you can tell, I really liked the way that you described Iris as a narrator. It’s fun finding quotes from reviews where the blogger loved the book.

  5. Hi there,

    I agree with much of what you say.

    It’s a shame, I’ve tried to love Atwood, but the chemistry isn’t there. She’s a very good writer but her style and stories just don’t capture me.

  6. I’ve never tried Atwood – I think I’m intimidated by her work. You’ve made this one sound interesting, even if you weren’t rapturous about it.

  7. I really liked this book. It made me read more of Atwood!

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