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Blind Assassin    by Margaret Atwood order for
Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood
Order:  USA  Can
McClelland & Stewart, 2000 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Blind Assassin is a meticulously developed work of art, of stories within stories. Even the title has layers of meaning - a character in a casual tale, the title of a bestseller, and perhaps how the protagonist views herself in relation to her sister. The story is set in Avilion, Port Ticonderoga and Toronto, spanning a time from the early 1900's to the present day. It is told by Iris Chase, sister of noted authoress Laura Chase, and the proper wife of industrialist Richard Griffen. At least these are the assumptions that the reader is given at the beginning of the story. The first sentence is: 'Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.' She did this in 1945, leaving behind the legacy of her cult novel, The Blind Assassin.

An excerpt from this work describes a young couple having an illicit love affair in dingy surroundings. The man spins stories in the aftermath of passion, tales set in a world of three suns and multiple moons in the city of Sakiel-Norn, where a blind assassin is assigned to kill a mute sacrifice. The reader is shown more chapters and slowly clues in to the real-life identities of the man and woman, as he continues to tell tales. The author weaves back and forth from the daily life of Iris as an old woman to her reminiscences of her life with her sister and continuing dialogues from Laura Chase's book. The reader's assumptions start to unravel, but it is not clear what truth will be left at the ending. 'Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.'

What is the reality? Atwood unveils pieces of her detailed weave at a leisurely pace, that matches the meandering style of the old Iris Chase. Her use of imagery is dense and magical. At the end of World War I, Iris's father (one of the more intriguing characters) becomes an atheist ... 'Over the trenches God had burst like a balloon, and there was nothing left of him but grubby little scraps of hypocrisy.' The author places every word with consummate craft, with sentences to linger over ... 'The words roll smoothly and soundlessly enough across the page; it's getting them to flow down the arm, it's squeezing them out through the fingers, that is so difficult.'

In fact, Iris comments frequently on the writing process, perhaps revealing some of her creator as she says 'Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow' or 'I write at the kitchen table, as slowly as if engraving. The pen is heavy, hard to push, like a nail scratching on cement.' Atwood's comments on ageing are equally rich, such as when Iris wonders if she has been talking out loud ... 'Does my voice simply flow out of me like air when I'm not paying attention? A shrivelled whispering, winter vines rustling, the sibilance of autumn wind in dry grass.'

The characterization is always deft and occasionally cutting as in the descriptions of the poisonous sister-in-law Winifred who 'wore a black dress, simply cut but voraciously elegant' and had a 'whisky voice - low, deep almost, with a rough, scraped overlay to it like a cat's tongue - like velvet made of leather.' She and her brother Richard are the villains of the story, which is told dispassionately. At first, Iris appears callous, but later it seems more like the indifference of age and of emotions worn down by repetition.

As World War II begins Iris 'knows herself to be at the mercy of events, and she knows by now that events have no mercy', and indeed that is how they unfold after the end of the war. However, Iris, seemingly passive and powerless through most of the book, reveals her strength and ability to act and to surprise us. At times, this novel seemed almost too leisurely and long drawn out, though I enjoyed the journey through it, its vivid imagery and ironic observations. At the end it became one of the rare books that demands immediate re-reading, to appreciate its detail from a new perspective and at a deeper level.

Note: Blind Assassin was the winner of the Booker Prize, 2000.

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