Friday, August 6, 2010

A Story Within A Story Within A Story

'The Blind Assassin' 
By Margaret Atwood

Format: Paperback
Published: Anchor; Aug 2001
Pages: 521

Synopsis: Family secrets, sibling rivalry, political chicanery and social unrest, promises and betrayals, "loss and regret and memory and yearning" are the themes of Atwood's brilliant new novel, whose subtitle might read: The Fall of the House of Chase. Justly praised for her ability to suggest the complexity of individual lives against the backdrop of Canadian history, Atwood here plays out a spellbinding family saga intimately affected by WWI, the Depression and Communist witch-hunts, but the final tragedy is equally the result of human frailty, greed and passion. Octogenarian narrator Iris Chase Griffen is moribund from a heart ailment as she reflects on the events following the suicide in 1945 of her fey, unworldly 25-year-old sister, Laura, and of the posthumous publication of Laura's novel, called "The Blind Assassin." When her narration gives way to conversations between two people collaborating on a science fiction novel, we assume that we are reading the genesis of Laura's tale. The voices are those of an unidentified young woman from a wealthy family and her lover, a hack writer and socialist agitator on the run from the law; the lurid fantasy they concoct between bouts of lovemaking constitutes a novel-within-a-novel. Issues of sexual obsession, political tyranny, social justice and class disparity are addressed within the potboiler SF, which features gruesome sacrifices, mutilated body parts and corrupt, barbaric leaders. Despite subtle clues, the reader is more than halfway through Atwood's tour de force before it becomes clear that things are not what they seem. Meanwhile, flashbacks illuminate the Chase family history.  

My Take: So here's what happened. I started out my year thinking that there were some books and authors that I wanted to make sure to read this year. I think this happens to everyone. Not everyone reads every awesome book/author that is around when they first appear on the scene (or they need to go back and read a classic because they weren't told to read them in school!) and so we need to expereince books that we feel everyone else is talking about. Margaret Atwood was one of those authors for me. I felt like everyone, even people who haven't read a ton of books, have read at least one Atwood. So when I started 2010 I said that I will check her off my to read list. And this book, 'The Blind Assassin', was the book I felt I should read. Maybe this is controversial but this was the book that always called out to me on shelves in bookstores, that I always felt that I saw other people reading when I was out and about. But the year progressed and I hadn't read it yet. The I got to be on Thats How I Blog and we participate in a twenty minute book club and I thought this would be a great book to suggest and the rest is history!

This story, while I expected it to be rather epic, had a lot more going on than I expected, yet still managed to be a little dry. How is that possible? The story, for me, was bogged down in way too many details. The novel centers around the lives of two sisters, Iris and Laura. At the beginning a lot of dramamtic things happen, people die, it is very sad and then bam, Iris is old and looking back on her life and telling us about it. Iris as an 80 year old woman, I'll admit she was funny and acerbic as an older woman and I liked her. How she got through a hard life with so many people around her dying would be incredibly difficult but she managed.

The problem for me was this. I was hooked right away because it was so dramatic with everything happening and then about 150 pages in the story kind of stalled for me because as Iris is explaining her younger years with her mother, father, and sister Laura, she explains the day to day, the mundanity. Some major events happen, but we are talking year after year she categories for a couple of hundred pages. Let's speed this up! So there's two stories going on, Iris as an 80 year old reflecting on her life as a younger woman.

Now for the third story: the namesake, 'The Blind Assassin'. This is Laura's (Iris' sister) posthumous science fiction novel. It's not too hard to follow but what also happens is that they break this story up too with details of Laura's life with her lover. So maybe there are 4 stories going on? This actually isn't as confusing as it sounds because Atwood does break the sections up a lot but it does make it incredibly difficult to describe coherently so if this is hard to follow, I really apologize! However, whether or not I liked it, I think I thought it was just ok.

I've been told not to give up on Atwood yet but to try 'The Handsmaid's Tale' next. Do you agree?

(I bought this book)


  1. Have not read this one, but I did like Handmaid's Tale ...enjoy!

  2. I've never read any of Atwood's work, because I'm intimidated by it.

  3. Yes, try The Handmaid's Tale! I never managed to finish The Blind Assassin. Oryx and Crake was fascinating, too.

    And I just spent too much time staring at the cover of The Blind Assassin trying to figure out where her right arm disappeared to. Luckily, I finally found the hand.

  4. I have never read Atwood either but I am considering reading Handmaid's Tale.

  5. The Handmaid's Tale is fantastic, and I agree with softdrink, Oryx and Crake is amazing, which is the book that made me discover Margaret Atwood. Another good one is The Robber Bride.


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