Imagine those Russian nesting dolls, the ones that live one within anotherÖyou open the first one and there's a whole family inside. Like secrets, the more they keep appearing the deeper you go. There is an eerily similar structure to Margaret Atwood's long awaited novel, THE BLIND ASSASSIN.
The novel's title is actually the title of the story within, written by the narrator's sister, Laura Chase, who on the very first page of the book, you learn, drives herself off a bridge ten days after World War II ends. In the next few chapters you are fed the fate of the remaining Chase and Griffen family members in newspaper clippings and articles. In 1998 the remaining family members are narrator Iris Chase Griffen, older sister to deceased Laura and wife of the prominent, pestilent and now deceased Richard. Her only descendent is her estranged granddaughter Sabrina, whom she doesn't know at all but yearns to meet.
Lonely and regretful, Iris still imagines herself as a young woman beneath the heavy shackles of age despite her papery skin and brittle bones. Her blind assassin --- impending death --- feels close by, so she hurries her pen to paper and tries to write the tragedy that is her life and ultimately the legacy of her granddaughter. At the end of her life she realizes, "Nothing is more difficult than to understand the deadÖbut nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them." Only now, in the clarity of time passed, can she see the error of her ways --- and that of her family. In a series of flashbacks that return intermittently to Iris's present and rather solitary life, Atwood tells a complicated but engaging story. The backdrop is over one hundred years of Canadian history, and the story is of Iris and Laura's posh, then poor and often painful childhood. Yet at the heart of everything is the fantastical tale of "The Blind Assassin," Laura's passionate and controversial novel, published after her death.
Growing up in a sea of old money and then no money, Iris and her sister rely on the kindness of others, a la Blanche Dubois, and like Blanche they are deceived. Trying to do what she thinks is right after her father's business is about to go under, Iris sells herself --- in a sense --- into marriage and ultimately a business merger with the older, wealthy Richard Griffen. She immediately finds herself and her sister thrown into a pit of snakes --- Richard and his nasty society sister Winifred are the ones with the sharpest fangs.
In order to stay afloat in this new cutthroat world, Iris feigns ignorance and plays the role of the dim blonde, in turn allowing her life to be controlled by the very people who care about her least, and the one who loves her most, is left to fend for herselfÖunlucky Laura. Over the years, the scandals and corruption increase, and Iris realizes the hell she has entered into, but like one who makes a deal with the devil, she doesn't believe there is any escape. For Laura, it was death. What will it be for Iris?
Interspersed with the woeful tale of the Chase sisters is another sad story, that of "The Blind Assassin." It's about a man and a woman involved in a clandestine love affair, inevitably doomed of course, but their secret and passionate meetings are highlighted by the sci-fi fable he tells his lover every time they meet. In another dimension of time, in a land called Sakiel-Norn, an entire society of people live in luxury but only at the cost of sadistic yearly sacrifices and the hands and eyes of unlucky slave children. With deft hands the children weave the most beautiful and intricate fabrics with striking colors and fine textures, but after only a few years they are blinded by their incessant work. They are then turned into prostitutes, thieves, and finally, assassins. As the two lovers continue to meet throughout the novel, always at the risk of getting caught, the story is told in vivid installments. While reading the excerpts of "The Blind Assassin," you begin to wonder --- what is fact and what is fiction within this novel? Who are the real lovers of this story?
A story within a story within a story --- more nesting dolls emerge with every chapter leading up to the finale. THE BLIND ASSASSIN, Atwood's enormous and multilayered creation, is a genuine treat to fans who have waited eagerly for her next novel. Despite a few moments of melodrama, and antagonists who sometimes appear two-dimensional, she still delivers a deliriously moving epic.
Reviewed by Dana Schwartz on January 21, 2011