‘Was that the beginning, that evening – on the dock at Avilion, with the fireworks dazzling the sky? It’s hard to know. Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.232
The Blind Assassin begins with one of the most memorable lines I have read in fiction – ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge’. Atwood doesn’t start at the ‘beginning’ but delves right into the crux of the story. Told from the perspective of 83-year-old Iris Chase Griffen who is writing down her truth for the benefit of a grandchild she hasn’t seen for decades, The Blind Assassin unpacks the difficult and precarious task of remembering. There are, in fact, numerous layers of narrative embedded in this slow-moving, yet incredibly intriguing, tale. Newspaper clippings, family history, revisited childhood memories, excerpts of ‘The Blind Assassin’ – a fictional and scandalous story presumably written by Iris’s sister, Laura, and posthumously published – and the actual blind assassin within this story-within-a-story are all threaded through a narrative that is surprisingly easy to follow. Though each layer adds to the difficulty of trying to form a coherent whole in order to find the ‘truth’, Atwood artfully achieves this seamless narrative, creating a novel that is well-deserving of the Man Booker Prize.
Spanning the breadth of the twentieth century, Iris remembers back to a time before her and Laura were born. Beginning with the inception of her grandfather’s button-factory – of which they are still reaping the benefits, though in a somewhat declining way – and the romanticised account of her grandmother Adelia, Iris paints a vivid picture of the family home she was brought up in, Avilion. She also recounts the history of her father who, along with his two brothers, enters into the First World War voluntarily and is the sole Chase survivor. On his return he takes up his father’s button-factory business and marries a sensible, religious woman.
‘[…] my father was now an atheist. Over the trenches God had burst like a balloon, and there was nothing left of him but grubby little scraps of hypocrisy. Religion was just a stick to beat the soldiers with, and anyone who declared otherwise was full of pious drivel. What had been served by the gallantry of Percy and Eddie – by their bravery, their hideous deaths? What had been accomplished? They’d been killed by the blunderings of a pack of incompetent and criminal old men who might just as well have cut their throats and heaved them over the side of the SS Caledonian. All the talk of fighting for God and Civilisation made him vomit’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.96
A marriage fraught with difficulties and incompatibilities, Iris’s father turns to drink whilst her mother’s weak, failing health culminates in her premature death in childbirth. Left at the age of nine to take on the role of her sister’s keeper, Iris often resented the responsibility. She also resented the pressure of inheriting the fate of the button-factory and marrying for convenience rather than love. Instead of having a choice as to who she would marry, Iris is thrust into marriage with an older, controlling, new-money man, Richard, and his overbearing manipulative sister, Winifred. Though, throughout all of this, 83-year-old Iris recounts with a searingly intimate honesty and a control that is heartbreaking because it is the only form of control she has ever seemed to have in her life. Witty, bleak and full of wisdom, her narrative is beautiful and the truth of what she has to say only really impacted on me once I had finished the novel – almost like how Iris describes the insidious, creeping, unrecognisable beginnings of an event that is going to change the path of your life or alter it considerably.
For instance, there is one event in Iris’ and Laura’s teenage years that sealed their particularly tragic fate – meeting the revolutionary, Alex Thomas. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, the sisters hide him away in their derelict attic at Avilion until he flees to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It seems at this point in the story similarities start to occur between the history Iris is recounting and the excerpts of ‘The Blind Assassin’.
‘A week after Alex Thomas’s departure, Laura came to my room. “I think you should have this”, she said. It was a print of the photograph of the three of us, the one Elwood Murray had taken at the picnic. But she’d cut herself out of it – only her hand remained. She couldn’t have got rid of this hand without making a wobbly margin. She hadn’t coloured this picture at all, except for her own cut-off hand. This had been tinted a very pale yellow’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.268-9
Links between each narrative strand are hinted at but never fully disclosed until right at the end and, although I guessed what the real ‘truth’ was, I was left feeling in awe at how such a complicated premise for a novel was so artfully, seamlessly and satisfactorily tied up. I don’t want to give away too much as I found one of the most rewarding aspects of The Blind Assassin was to work things out on my own (before Iris’ narrative caught up to explain the awful fate of her sister’s death). Again, I am blown away by Margaret Atwood’s story-telling abilities.
I will leave this post with some of my favourite quotes from The Blind Assassin (it is full of wonderful gems!)
‘People cry at weddings for the same reason they cry at happy endings: because they so desperately want to believe in something they know is not credible’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.293
‘What was the rationale for all this pillaging? Souvenirs. These people needed something to remember themselves by. An odd thing, souvenir-hunting: now becomes then even while it is still now. You don’t really believe you’re there, and so you nick the proof, or something you mistake for it.
I myself made off with an ashtray’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.465
‘Richard on his part had had one mistress and then another, or so I suspected – inevitable (Winifred would later say) considering my frail state of health, and Richard’s urges. Men had urges, in those days; they were numerous, these urges; they lived underground in the dark nooks and crannies of a man’s being, and once in a while they would gather strength and sally forth, like a plague of rats. They were so cunning and strong, how could any real man be expected to prevail against them? This was the doctrine according to Winifred, and – to be fair – to lots of other people as well’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.584
‘I could have stopped there. I could have chosen ignorance, but I did what you would have done – what you’ve already done, if you’ve read this far. I chose knowledge instead. / Most of us will. We’ll choose knowledge no matter what, we’ll maim ourselves in the process, we’ll stick our hands into the flames for it if necessary. Curiosity is not our only motive: love or grief or despair or hatred is what drives us on. We’ll spy relentlessly on the dead: we’ll open their letters, we’ll read their journals, we’ll go through their trash, hoping for a hint, a final word, an explanation, from those who have deserted us – who’ve left us holding the bag, which is often a good deal emptier than we’d supposed’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.602-3