Book Review: "The Blind Assassin," by Margaret Atwood

This week, I was held hostage by the words of magnificent storyteller Margaret Atwood, whose hefty 521-page book, “The Blind Assassin” is a masterwork, as nearly perfect a novel as I have ever read. I give it five stars out of five.

I’m thankful this story was my first venture into Atwood Land, because now I’m hooked. I certainly will read “The Handmaid’s Tale” and some of her other classics.

First, a forewarning: If you undertake to read this book at my recommendation, don’t be surprised if you find yourself, like one Goodreads reviewer noted, tempted to abandon ship because “the story moves too slowly.” I promise, the slow burn is intentional on Atwood’s part. The tale builds as new layers are added, and the payoff will be worth every moment you spent wondering whether the dust jacket copy had it right: that events will “follow one another at a breathtaking pace.”

On the novel’s first page, we learn Laura Chase has died of an apparent suicide, ten days after the end of World War II, and left behind her sister, who is narrator Iris Chase Griffen. Just as the story starts to unfold through Iris’s perspective, we are diverted to a novel within the novel, “The Blind Assassin,” which was published posthumously on behalf of Laura by Iris.

From there, the story alternates between the larger narrative – Iris, in her 80s in the year 1998, writing a memoir about her and Laura’s life and what led up to the suicide – and the novel-within-a-novel, a sci-fi story a young man tells to his lover as they meet in seedy places.

There also are stretches where Iris talks for a few pages about what’s going on in her present-day life (hint: she is fond of The Weather Channel and likes to describe what's growing in her garden), and there are a lot of “clippings” from local newspapers and gossip columnists of the '30s and '40s that help mark milestones in the Chase and Griffen saga.

Here’s what I loved about this story — and I suspect this also is what might hinder impatient readers: For so long, you don’t know where you stand on the Iris question. Do I like her? Is she weak-willed or strong? Did she even like her sister Laura? Why did things go so hard for her? What is the mystery at the bottom of her languorous reflections on the past? Why is she writing this memoir?

The answers will be revealed. And you will feel SO good when the curtain falls.

Read more posts in the Storytelling Sunday series here.

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