Canada’s prize novelist of the day has just brought out her 15th
novel since 1969: “The Blind Assassin.” Weighing in at 521 pages,
quite likely Margaret Atwood’s longest novel, it is a prodigious
achievement in its ambition.

Her narrative weaves smoothly along on five levels, starting off
literally in the first paragraph with the fiery death of the narrator’s
younger sister, Laura, at age 26 — a death whose cause will only be
revealed in the last pages of the book, although perceptive readers may
have their own suspicions somewhat earlier.

  1. Iris Chase Griffen, born in 1916, is now commenting in diary form
    on her daily life in the small Canadian town of Port Ticonderoga,
    recording all the small discontents and grievances age brings. She has
    a tart tongue though, noting for instance how the Cookie Gremlin where
    she stops for a snack offers cookies “huge, the size of a cow pat, the
    way they make them now — tasteless, crumbly, greasy.”

  2. Iris gives us a fairly detailed accounting of her life from its
    beginning as the elder of two granddaughters of the little town’s
    leading manufacturer — of buttons. Her father returned from the First
    World War lame and with one eye. He drinks. Her mother is a sensitive,
    weak soul, given to good works, who dies of a miscarriage when Iris is
    nine. Iris and her younger by three-and-a-half years sister, Laura, are
    basically brought up by Rennie, the housekeeper, a strong, dependable
    woman.

    The father hires expensive tutors who ineffectively educate the two
    girls, who are left more or less to their own devices. At 18 Iris is
    thrust into a loveless but dutiful marriage to a rising entrepreneur,
    Richard Griffen, essentially to rescue her father’s business, which is
    rapidly sinking beneath the waves in the Depression.

  3. Interspersed as a separate narrative, we have another novel, also
    titled “The Blind Assassin,” which Iris tells us is the work of her late
    sister published after her death and becoming a cult novel to later
    generations. A man and a woman meet for brief sexual encounters. They
    are given no names but, we gather from Iris’s narrative, she is the
    woman and the man, Alex Thomas, a communist on the run, who the two
    girls, while still teen-agers, hide in their family attic for a time.

  4. In addition to his political activities, Alex writes science
    fiction stories for cheap pulp magazines. In a kind of Scheherazade
    fashion, after each sexual encounter he relates the plots of the stories
    he is working on and, every time they meet again, she is eager to hear
    what is going to happen next. As science fiction goes, Atwood serves up
    a decent pastiche of the 1930s variety, with giant green lizard men in
    bright red shorts coming to destroy the city of Sakiel-Norn on the
    planet Zycron.

    Into Alex’s tales we find he is working, transforming into fiction,
    his relationship with Iris. Young virgins on the planet Zycron are
    sacrificed but, because they used to cry and scream so much, the King
    ordered their tongues to be cut out — shades of John Irving’s first
    novel, “According to Garp.” A lower order of the population of the
    mythical planet are blinded as children so they can weave the beautiful
    masks worn by the ruling class. When the children grow to adulthood,
    many become assassins — blind assassins.

    Charged with orders to kill the latest virgin to set off a revolt,
    the assassin who can’t see and the virgin who can’t speak fall in love.
    But, before Iris can find what their fate will be, Alex goes off to
    fight in the Spanish Civil War. Think John Garfield, the Hollywood
    actor of the ’30s and ’40s, as Alex and you get a fairly good notion of
    the style of the character.

  5. Tucked in between the three parallel narratives, Atwood drops in
    clippings, social notes from newspapers about activities of the family
    over the decades, ending with an obituary of Iris.

Of course what Atwood is doing in writing an apparent love story is
presenting a woman of her period, who docilely, dutifully obeys the
dictates of men: her father, a repressed, neurotic man and her husband,
a true swine of the first order, a virtual feminist caricature of the
odious male of the species. (In addition to being piggish around women,
he supported Hitler up to the Second World War, just in case you needed
any additional evidence of his odiousness.) True, Alex appears more
appealing than the other two men in her life — not difficult — but
love appears more intense on her side than his.

As a portrait of a period, “The Blind Assassin” works most
successfully, although you can’t help wondering about those four letter
words scattered through the second “Blind Assassin,” as it were.
Supposedly published in 1947 at a time when Norman Mailer didn’t dare
use his favorite F-word, substituting “fug” in “The Naked and the Dead”
you may remember, it seems that here Atwood felt the need to liven up
her prose at the sacrifice of period authenticity.

No matter, “The Blind Assassin” is one of the Fall’s big books by one
of the better writers of the age. It is a good read, although one I
suspect to be appreciated more by women than male readers.

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