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'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Atwood

Atwood piles on layers of meaning

Sunday, November 05, 2000

By Monica L. Williams, The Boston Globe


The Blind Assassin

By Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday


Margaret Atwood’s latest novel is risky, unconventional, complex and impossible to confine to one genre. Complexity and originality have always set Atwood apart, but this time she ups the ante.

The result is a multilayered, unorthodox tale of avarice, love and survival that resonates on several levels. What has been marketed as a novel within a novel could be better described as pulp fantasy within a romance novel within a dark family saga.

The saga, which covers more than 100 years of Canadian history, centers on two sisters, Laura and Iris Chase: one who died young and the other who was left behind. The sisters face grim times during the Great Depression.

At 18, Iris marries 35-year-old Richard Griffen, a prominent but conniving industrialist, in a deal to help save the family business. The marriage and the ensuing drama propel a large part of the novel. The chilling narrative chronicles the family secrets, as conveyed via five interrelated plots.

Much of the story is told as a wry memoir from the vantage of Iris Chase Griffen, in her 80s and fading, who decides to unburden herself of the secrets she has kept for decades. She unloads them in a lengthy letter that she hopes will be discovered after her death.

On the opening page, Iris recalls her sister’s death at 25 in 1945 in an automobile accident that was anything but. The rest of the letter recounts two deaths that follow: Richard Griffen’s suspicious death in 1947 and the fatal fall of his daughter, Aimee, in 1975.

For the next 500 pages, Atwood slowly fills in the blanks of what happens in between those events through Iris’s sprawling narrative and through a posthumous book by Laura, “The Blind Assassin,” which becomes a science fiction cult classic after its publication.

Laura’s novel within Atwood’s is the tale of two unnamed lovers who meet secretly in dingy backstreet hideouts. It won’t take long to figure out that the dark world in Laura’s cult classic has a link to her reality. But there are enough mysteries to keep readers intrigued. The dynamic denouement is worth the wait.

Atwood’s strengths are also her weaknesses. She has often been lauded as a feminist icon for her tales of disadvantaged heroines, but the dearth of positive male characters in “The Blind Assassin” can be troubling.

As a novella, Laura’s tale doesn’t work as well as the rest of the book. Those not fond of science fiction will lose patience with the free-style tale; others who are fond of stories of another world will probably find her work brilliant.

But at other times, it’s not the writing style or genre that prompts impatience, it’s the complexity. Just as the memoir unfolds, she interrupts with yet another tale, decorating the collage with more color, via newspaper clippings, obituaries and sci-fi parables. But variety is quintessential Atwood, and her talent always beckons.

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