I just finished The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and am missing it already. It was perfect winter reading—woven so seamlessly that despite its density the story feels light and airy, like a warm but never stifling scarf. This sense of coziness and familiarity is appropriate because despite the book’s complex chronology, its underlying form is an ancient one: in her old age, a woman writes her life story, hoping to explain herself to the next generation.
The book begins with the death of Laura Chase, the protagonist’s sister, dips back into the sisters’ childhood, then forward to Iris Chase (the protagonist/writer) as an old woman. In these alternate timelines we are also treated to sections of Laura’s posthumously published science fiction novel, The Blind Assassin, as well as scenes in which a wealthy woman (presumably Laura) and a revolutionary on the run (assumedly a young man from their childhood, Alex) meet for clandestine sexual trysts in his various boarding houses. During these romantic escapades the man tells the woman a story which also features a blind assassin and which he, too, turns into a novel, though it is published under a different name. Newspaper clippings—obituaries, society pages—round out the chain of viewpoints. If you haven’t caught on yet: there is a lot of storytelling going on here.
The structure may sound complex, but it does not require a great deal of concentration, and in fact makes the book more fun, as it turns it into a kind of mystery. Nonetheless, the novel’s real beauty lies in its descriptions of historical events, and of the two main characters, Iris and Laura. Iris, the storyteller, is practical, careful, and dispassionate. It’s easy to see why people are more interested in her sister, whom Iris describes as "different," acknowledging that to her, as to most people, "different" means "strange." It seems to be Laura’s literalness, religiosity, and sensitivity that alternately intrigue and disturb people. For example, after their mother dies when the girls are young, Iris reports on this exchange with Laura: "‘Mother is with God,’ Laura said. True, this was the official version, the import of all the prayers that had been offered up; but Laura had a way of believing such things, not in the double way everyone else believed them, but with a tranquil single-mindedness that made me want to shake her." Despite her frustration with her sister, Iris is relatively sympathetic. Much of her life is spent playing mother to her younger sister.
In fact, motherhood, or, more accurately, womanhood in general, is one of the central themes of this novel. In preparing to write this column I read several reviews of the book published when it first came out. Most were written by men who did not love it as much as I did. Actually, I noticed a trend—men tended to write negative reviews of The Blind Assassin and women, positive ones. Of course it’s only conjecture, but I wonder if the male’s lack of enjoyment and the female’s pleasure might lie in the fact that this is a totally female-centric book. The two most important male characters—Iris and Laura’s father, and Richard, Iris’s husband—are drawn, as one (male) reviewer in the New York Times pointed out, as "flat as a pancake." The father is a crippled war veteran ruined by drink and the death of his wife, while Richard is a cruel, spoiled man who abuses his young wife. The eighty-year-old Iris sums him up in a few lines: "It wasn’t that he was too big for his boots. He wasn’t big enough for them. That’s it in a nutshell."
The chronicler, Iris, acknowledges her own slack characterization of the men in her drama, but seems to feel this is not much of a problem. The men are not really the point, after all. The point is what happened to Iris and Laura, and how each one responded to events outside of her control. Iris’s responses are not always admirable, and Laura’s are often incomprehensible. In her memoir, Iris wants to explain, if not defend, herself. After all, it is, she claims, the first time she has had the liberty to do so. Previously, she says, "I was sand, I was snow—written on, rewritten, smoothed over." As a woman, Iris’s "body has gotten in the way of free speech." The body here is not always sexualized, but it is always female and it is always a factor in what can and cannot be said.
While the novel suggests that gender is a restricting force for Iris and Laura, it also resists the idea that gender alone is responsible for the unfortunate events of their lives; The Blind Assassin raises the question of personal responsibility vs. societal forces. What responsibility do we have to ourselves, to our family, to our community? Is a woman’s responsibility less, because her agency is less? Atwood presents the sisters not merely as victims, but as active, complex agents—ones that act foolishly, selfishly, or generously, depending on factors both within and outside of their own control.
The "mystery" aspect of the book is easy enough to solve. In fact, Iris spells it out for us by the end. But the question I’m left with is this: Who is the blind assassin? On the most obvious level the title refers to Laura’s posthumously published novel. Though this book is science fiction, it is also an allegorical representation of Iris’s (relatively) forced marriage to Richard Griffen, a wealthy industrialist whom Iris’s father hopes will not only take care of his daughters, but also save his own factories, which have been hard hit by the Great Depression. Unfortunately, Richard proves as heartless a businessman as he is a husband, selling the Chase family factories and stripping away any independence Iris and Laura ever had. Or, at least, he tries to.
Still, if the story within the story is an allegory about Iris and Laura’s life, who is “the blind assassin”? It could be Iris. She seems to go through much of her life willfully blind. Atwood may be suggesting that Iris inadvertently kills Laura because she chooses not to see what is happening before her very eyes. Perhaps if she had been more willing or able to see what was going on (I don’t want to give it away), she could have saved her sister’s life. On the other hand, perhaps Laura herself is the blind assassin. Deeply religious yet extremely inquisitive at the same time, Laura is something of a rare creature—an antagonistic saint (about as likely as a blind assassin?). But Laura doesn’t try to stir up trouble, at least not according to Iris. For the earnest Laura, diplomacy is out of the question, even when it might help her achieve her higher purposes. She is blind to the possibility of sacrificing her (sometimes half-baked) principles, and that may be what Atwood means if she’s saying that Laura is the blind assassin. While Iris is blinded to the needs of those beyond herself and her immediate family, Laura is so concerned with outside causes that she is blind to how her actions affect those closest to her.
A final possibility is that all of the characters in the book could be classified as blind assassins. With the possible exception of Iris at eighty, not one of them can adequately see the many and complicated forces at work in their lives, including patriarchy, capitalism, communism, anarchy, war, sex, greed, and religion. In addition to these systemic forces, each individual contends with a multitude of other weird, complicated individuals, who make good and bad and unusual and inexplicable choices. Ultimately, this is what comprises life. At the end it, whether or not we understand it, we all want to be remembered, to have our actions mean something: writing, whether it’s a science fiction book, a newspaper article, or a memoir for our grandchildren, is a natural way to do that. In a way, reflection through writing might be the only possibility for seeing at all.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and Martha Stewart Living, among other publications.