Hello again, dear readers! Today I’d like to introduce a new feature to this blog, entitled “books I like”. In “books I like”, I will be reviewing books I like for your entertainment and, perhaps, the further population of your shelves. There will be no rating system involved, no grades given, no stars awarded. The only official evaluation made will be my own decision to review a given book for “books I like”, signifying explicitly, as one can glean from the name of the feature, that I like that book (and implicitly that I recommend it to you, dear readers, on the belief that you will like it as well).
Why have I chosen to review only books I like? There are a number of reasons, but the most important is that I’m doing this for fun and I don’t want to waste my time trashing someone else’s work. Some books just aren’t that great, and reviewers willing to slog through such books, then put in the effort to write up a review, fulfill an important function, but that isn’t my job, readers, nor do I find it particularly enjoyable. What I do enjoy is sharing good books with the reading public, so that’s what I will be doing. (And of course, the fact that I haven’t reviewed a given book should not be taken as evidence that I don’t like it, only that I am a mortal human being living in a realm of linear time, unable to write up a review for every single book I adore.)
I’m starting things off with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, not just because it’s a great book, but because I happen to have just finished reading it, which seemed like a fortuitously simple way of choosing a subject for our inaugural feature. Now, I’m certainly not the only person who likes this book. It’s garnered heaps of praise, and awards including the Man Booker Prize—still generally a reliable stamp of quality, in my opinion, unlike certain other supposedly prestigious arts awards (looking at you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). I’m not exactly going out on a limb professing my admiration here, is what I’m saying. But I read it and I liked it, and those are the two criteria for appearing in this feature, so here we go!
At its most basic level, The Blind Assassin is a family saga. Set mostly in and around Port Ticonderoga, a fictional town in the very real Ontario, Canada, it follows the Chase family through more than a hundred years of history, beginning in the 1870s with the founding of a button factory that establishes the Chase family fortune, all the way to the end of the Twentieth Century. Most of the story, however, takes place during the 1930s and 40s, and concerns the doings of the Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, third generation button heiresses and souls lost in a tumultuous period of history. The book begins with Laura’s death by dramatic car crash, officially deemed an accident but pretty plainly a suicide, as it involves driving more or less directly off a bridge. In the first five pages of the book, we hear the story first from Iris, Laura’s older sister, then from a newspaper clipping, and finally—obliquely—in the prologue of The Blind Assassin, a novel published on Laura’s behalf in 1947, two years after her death.
These three sources—Iris’s recollections, contemporary newspaper clippings, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin—become the devices through which the story is told. Iris Chase (Iris Chase Griffen at the time of her sister’s death) is our primary historian, looking back from the year 1999 on the events leading up to Laura’s death. Now in her 80s, and suffering from a heart condition, Iris haunts the story’s important sites, recording what she remembers in a book of her own (though to what end even she isn’t sure—at least at first). The clippings and book excerpts, meanwhile, run in parallel to Iris’s narrative, the newspapers depicting events in the public sphere—labor unrest at the Chase button factory, for example, and society pages detailing Iris’s wedding to Richard Griffen, noted industrialist and political hopeful—while The Blind Assassin follows a more secret history, one with mysteries running well into the present day (the present day being 1999, remember).
Though presented as a series of excerpts, The Blind Assassin is a complete novel-within-a-novel, telling the story of two lovers through episodes of their clandestine trysts. Neither is named explicitly, but Laura is widely presumed to be the wealthy socialite sneaking out to meet a down-and-out science fiction writer, who begins spinning for her the tale of a distant planet—“another dimension of space”—called Zycron, and the lost city of Sakiel-Norn, where slave children are forced to weave carpets so intricate they go blind before the work is finished. When they grow up, these blind slaves become Sakiel-Norn’s most feared assassins. The book caused a scandal upon publication, and fifty years later, as Iris sets her memories to paper, remains a highly regarded, important piece of literature (Laura’s grave is often visited by devoted fans, for example).
For those of us following along with Iris’s family history, and with history at large, the events of The Blind Assassin become a kind of code, inviting us to interpret between the two worlds. The unnamed man in the The Blind Assassin, for example, is on the run from the law for unknown reasons—but a savvy reader might draw the connection between him and Alex Thomas, a young fellow accused of burning down the Chase family button factory. (A young fellow, we learn, known to harbor communist sympathies of the sort that might lead him to imagine a city like Sakiel-Norn, with its tyrannical rulers and underclass of blinded slave children.) The Blind Assassin, meanwhile, sheds its own more subtle illumination onto the events in Iris’s more comprehensive account.
Of the three modes of storytelling, Iris’s history, framed by her daily life in Port Ticonderoga, makes up the majority of The Blind Assassin (Atwood’s version, that is, not the novel-within-a-novel or the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel)—in terms of page count as well as in the real work setting down the events of Iris and Laura’s lives. As a reader, I appreciated this, because old Iris Chase was my favorite character by far. She is a credibly crotchety old lady, full of wry, I’m-too-old-to-give-a-shit frankness (while visiting her attorney: “…they bill by the minute, these lawyers, just like the cheaper whores”). She takes the same dryly acerbic tone in tales of her younger self, an Iris much pushed about by forces of a time and place in which well-bred young women were expected to be seen and not heard (and in some cases not even seen), and though rather ruthless with this other Iris, is not beyond the point of sympathy, especially as she herself begins to struggle with a different kind of powerlessness brought on by old age.
(And to readers familiar with Atwood’s other work: you might be expecting to see a feminist theme or two cropping up at some point, might even have detected the beginnings of same in my summary thus far. Well, a full description would get a bit spoilery, but let us say that the blind assassin’s female foil and romantic interest is a sacrificial virgin whose tongue has been cut out to prevent her from denouncing the society whose perverse mores have condemned her to death. Anyway. By and large, though, feminism in The Blind Assassin, while certainly present, tends to be a deal more subtle than that to be found, for example, in what these days is probably Atwood’s best-known novel.)
The Blind Assassin (the novel-within-a-novel this time) becomes a kind of shadow to the elaborate saga of the Chase family, a ghost lurking just out of sight. (The newspaper clippings, meanwhile, are for the most part aesthetic, brief but telling shifts in perspective.) Paired with its more substantial counterpart, this second narrative feels refreshingly ethereal—gauzy, languorous, smoke-rising-from-an-ashtray sorts of scenes to contrast with the more eventful chronicles of Port Ticonderoga. The tales of Zycron and Sakiel-Norn—which often include interspersed dialogue and commentary—act as an additional plane on which the unnamed lovers interact. That they’re also pretty transparent metaphors-for-our-lives sorts of stories didn’t detract anything for me. (Though don’t expect our fictive blind assassin to do much of anything; that part of the book is pretty light on plot.)
As a standalone novel, though, The Blind Assassin (again, story-within-story) didn’t really hold up for me. A shadow without a body, as it were. In the context of the book at large (The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood), that isn’t such a big deal, because it doesn’t actually have to stand alone. I think it works very well when posed alongside the novel’s other sections; Atwood’s balancing act, her blending of stories, is expert indeed. It’s just that I had a little trouble buying The Blind Assassin by Laura Chase as the important work of fiction it’s described to be in the world of the story. That said, I can see how it might have been revolutionary for its time (that is, the time of its fictional publication, being the late 1940s)—certainly scandalous, which in itself is often enough to be remembered. If The Catcher in the Rye caused something of a stir for its sexual themes, a book published around the same time that includes the line, “He’d like to grab hold of her, haul her up to his room, fuck her six ways to Sunday” would certainly raise an eyebrow or two.
If there was one aspect of The Blind Assassin I found at all disappointing, it was the twist. Yes, readers, there is a twist. It isn’t a bad twist—I quite liked it, actually. The problem was that it’s one of those twists that, if it arrives as a surprise, will make you see everything that came before in a new light, and I guessed it about a hundred pages in. To be fair, I was looking for a twist. “These richly layered stories-within-stories… [come] together in a brilliant and astonishing final twist”, says the back cover of my paperback edition. So from the start I was trying to guess what it was, this astonishing final twist, and eventually I ran across a line that made me think, “Oh, I wonder if X.” And X was the twist, readers. This became more and more obvious as I read (the evidence mounts quickly, once you suspect what’s happening), to the extent that I began to wonder whether there was some other, twistier twist coming. There wasn’t. By the time I got to the end, and the twist leapt in ambush from the hedges, it felt like the natural unfolding of the plot rather than a mind-blowing revelation—which was too bad, because I do like a good mind-blowing twist.
Guessing the twist early on didn’t ruin the book for me—far from it. Yes, I stumbled over the secret ahead of schedule, but I still enjoyed the detective work of uncovering the truth, and had the pleasure of observing the story from multiple angles. And I got to congratulate myself for figuring it out, then brag about my deductive skills to you, dear readers. What I missed was the experience that can come with a world-changing twist, of finishing one book and then being given another already imprinted into your mind, of being able to see these two versions—one in ignorance, the other in knowledge—at once. Two stories in one reading, as it were. A remarkable experience, to be sure, but there are other reasons to read, and The Blind Assassin will satisfy most of them.
Thus concludes my review of The Blind Assassin, readers. If it is not already clear, I recommend this book. Highly. Since this my first edition of “books I like” (and who knows when I’ll write another?) I don’t mind stating as much explicitly. It’s a great book. Margaret Atwood is literally a poet (a good one, too), and it shows in her prose. This isn’t a quick read (my copy tops off at 521 pages, not really a surprise when you consider that includes an entire second novel), but it’s worth the effort (it was for me, anyway), and it moves. You will not be slogging here, readers. Do have a look.
(And while we’re on the subject of reviews, feel free to review mine. Comments section is below.)
That’s all for now, readers. I hope you had fun—I know I did. Until next time!