The Blind Assassin is a Booker Prize-winning novel by the multi-award winning Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood perhaps best known for The Handmaid’s Tale. The book is a hefty thing and having slogged my way through it, I have to say I found it rather long-winded and a little disappointing as it is not in fact really about a blind assassin. Yes I read the back cover blurb and so really should have known better, but there you are. I enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale and was expecting more sci-fi and intrigue than I got. Spoilers below…
The story, mostly set in the fictional town of Port Ticonderoga in Ontario, revolves around the Chase sisters. The ostensibly sensible Iris and her ditsy younger sibling Laura are born into a rich family who’s business gradually suffers from the well-meaning but ultimately poor leadership of their widower father reacting to the economic and political events of Twentieth century Canada.
It is told from the point of view of an elderly Iris looking back on her life and slowly uncovering the reasons why her sister drove off a bridge on the day the end of WWII was announced. She is writing down her story to leave for her estranged granddaughter to learn the truth about her family history.
There are two other stories wrapped up inside the book and one is titled The Blind Assassin and recounts the various clandestine meetings of two lovers. One lover is based on Alex Thomas, a politically radical author of pulp science fiction who the sisters befriend, the other appears initially to be based on Laura but it gradually becomes apparent that it’s based on Iris who is having an affair with Alex behind her husband’s back.
Her husband, Richard Griffin, is an obnoxious businessman who bought out her father’s business and it turns out has been secretly abusing her sister for years. It is the story of the lovers that Iris publishes under her dead sister’s name leading to the ill-fated Laura having a post-humous cult following in Canada. Publishing the story feels like an attempt by Iris to snub Richard, his overbearing sister and their new-rich clique, since they tried hard to control Laura’s behaviour for fear it would damage Richard’s political ambitions.
The second story within a story is actually a science fiction (or science fantasy) story dreamt up by the fictional Alex to entertain his lover and delivered episodically at each meeting. It does indeed feature a blind assassin and for me was really the most interesting bit of the book and so of course I would’ve liked to have read more of that and less about the various overheard business conversations, missing correspondence and stories of trade unionists and Communist troublemakers.
In some ways the story of the blind assassin could be interpreted as a metaphor for Alex’s radical political stance but that could be taking the analysis of what is essentially the inclusion of a fun piece of pulp fiction a little too far.
Atwood also uses another trick from the fiction writer’s toolbox of including local newspaper articles reflecting the attitudes and interactions of the various characters from the point of view of a journalist of the time. They help create an atmosphere and show how, when war was about to break out, that the local press seemed more bothered about what fashions the Chase sisters were wearing at particular social gatherings. The articles also provide an interesting juxtaposition between Iris’s very introvert account of her life and how she was presented to the community their father helped to support.
It’s a rather simple love story mixed with a story of what happens when old-rich meets new-rich set against a backdrop of world events. It is mostly certainly not a badly written novel, the passages about Iris’s fight with old age are particularly engaging, but when the complexity of the storytelling is unpicked I find that I’m left wanting a bit more from the book.