Friday, June 10, 2011

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood — 521 pgs

The Blind Assassin: A NovelIn this intricately woven novel, Margaret Atwood gives us the life story of Laura and Iris Chase, sisters whose fates are intertwined from their first recollections to their last. Daughters of a dissolute and extremely wealthy factory owner, both Laura and Iris are raised in the lap of luxury by their parochial mother; but when she dies, it’s up to their housekeeper Reenie and Iris herself to do the job of raising the sisters, a job their father cannot do. While Iris is mostly a solitary young girl and woman, Laura is more flighty and taken by strange notions and beliefs that shape her consciousness and the way she views the world, a fact that will change both her destiny and her sister’s.

Running concurrently with the story of Laura and Iris’ lives, a third story, housed within a second, is taking place. A young woman is having an affair with a man who is on the run, and the two are forced to meet in various abodes that he has been able to negotiate. The young man begins to create a fantastic tale for the woman’s entertainment, of an alternate universe where aliens make hostile overtures, bands of renegade tribes are on the loose, and where human sacrifice is the order of the day. The hero of this universe is the titular blind assassin, who will go to great lengths to live up to his calling. As the story of young lovers and their fantastical story moves forward, it’s sandwiched between the continuing life saga of Iris and Laura, one of whom will end up dead under mysterious circumstances, leaving the other to carry on her memory. Both fantastically imagined and beautifully crafted, The Blind Assassin is a triumph of literary achievement from one of the world’s most beloved authors.

When the erudite and insightful Aarti decided we should do another joint read, I was eager and excited that we would finally be reading a book by Margaret Atwood. Though I’ve read a few of her books, there were some in her canon that I never got the chance to explore. That is why I was very excited that I would be reading The Blind Assassin alongside Aarti, because though I knew that Atwood could be at times difficult, I also knew that with the help of my reading buddy, we could untangle all the mysteries that the narrative presented. And there was a lot in this book to ponder and discuss, so it was really wonderful to have a sounding board to tease out the meanings behind the book’s themes and ideas. So without further ado I present the second half of our joint conversation regarding The Blind Assassin. For the first half, hop on over to Aarti’s blog and check it out!



Aarti: Strangely, I think some of the most interesting aspects of the book for me revolved around characters I didn’t like, such as Iris’ husband and sister-in-law. I think it's fascinating the way Iris’ sister-in-law Winifred was thought so highly of, but is portrayed by Iris as being pretty reptilian. I love not knowing what the truth is. I don’t trust Iris’ viewpoint entirely because she was such a self-absorbed person. She never seemed to care about anyone but herself. She kept saying that she pretended to be stupid just to annoy Winifred and her husband Richard, but I think she used it as a method to not take any ownership over her actions. She just let things happen to her. She gave up on fighting back way before she should have. She never really wanted to fight- much more a passive person than a strong one.

Heather: I also found Iris to be pretty repugnant by the end of the book, and one can argue that her loneliness and hermit-like behavior were her just rewards. Spineless is a good word for her. A lot of the things she did frustrated me. Iris really is the only one left to tell the story, and that got me thinking about unreliable narrators, because I just finished a book where the narrator was of the most unreliable kind. Not that Iris was at all like that, but her comment that she was the only one left to remember made me think about it.

The story of Iris' life could have been boring had it been written by a different author, but for some reason I find it all very fascinating, which I didn't expect when I started reading it. I’m starting to understand that when one section is taking place, slight clues are being left that will be picked up in the next section.

Aarti: I really like the sections about old Iris. Like you, I think they could have been really boring, but instead are just so touching. She's so clearly very lonely and tired and it comes out so well in her story. I think a lot of old people probably feel like that- that they used to be vibrant, independent people and now they have to depend on other people to even take them to the store for errands and the like. I think it would be so difficult to cope with that, and I wish I understood that more while my grandfather was alive.

Heather: I also felt really sorry for Iris at times. Though she didn't really express it, it felt to me like she was just waiting for her time to die, which made me sad. It’s so interesting to think about what you say. For many years we are vibrant and at the center of our own worlds, and then one day, we just aren't any more. We’re burdens to those who care for us and we have little to no usefulness. I think Iris came from a place where she felt sorry for herself and what she had become, and it was definitely the case that she felt sorry for what happened with her daughter and granddaughter. Most of these sections left me feeling a bit melancholy at best, but they were still very interesting to read.

Aarti: I am not sure what I think about Iris’ personality. I vacillate between hating her and feeling sorry for her. It's easy to be full of regret after seeing the consequences of your actions, but to have no thought as to how they affect people while you are making those decisions? That's not okay.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was one that I think I could probably read again immediately after finishing it, and get so much more from it, because of all the linkages between different story lines and the very tightly-woven plot. I have a feeling it’s one of those books that, each time you read it, you get something different from it and appreciate anew the author’s dexterity in writing it. It isn’t often that I enjoy reading a book with some truly horrible characters in it, but I was so engaged with this one because the narrator’s voice was so true and strong. This is, I hope, the first of many Atwood novels I’ll enjoy! I’m so glad we decided to read it together- I think I got so much more from it that way.

Heather: I also really enjoyed this book, and it was very different than the Atwood I read previously. I think you’re right about the story being layered and tight, and I can see that reading it again might give me another viewpoint and vantage point from which to draw opinions on it. I do think that, though the characters were unlikable, they had a very unique viewpoint and their perceptions and voice were original. I also would have loved to see more from Laura’s viewpoint, because as it was, there was a lot to speculate on in regards to her mental state and actions. In fact, if there was one small drawback in this book, I would have to say it was the lack of a concrete foundation where Laura was concerned. Other than that, the book was actually pretty flawless, and I enjoyed it a lot. There was a lot to ponder here, and I‘m glad we were able to read this one together as well. I always get more out of books that we can dissect together!

15 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I know Atwood is a well respected and important writer, but I'm totally intimidated by her work, and I'm not even sure why. I need to get past my fear.

Geosi said...

@ bermudaonion: Aw! you used the right word as I am often intimidated by her works. I am glad I own The Blind Assasin on my shelf and there is no inkling to read, plus some 521 pages of a book. I am happy Zibilee enjoyed it and it gives me that edge to pick it from my shelf and start reading.

Audra said...

This was very fun to read -- I hope you and Aarti do it again!

I'm very impatient with unappealing characters but now and then I find some place to be sympathetic. I'll try to remember that if I pick this up -- you two have me a bit curious!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I love the review and the discussion too.It sounds great. This is something I would love to do with a reader if I get the time. Interesting. And I have read an Atwood just last two weeks. I think hers is a book to read though I have also heard there are mediocre Atwoods lying around. I am yet to read one. The two I have read: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake were both fantastic.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've only read The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman, but enjoyed them both. I own this own and a a few others that I need to try. (A buddy read is always fun).

Suzanne said...

I read this book several years ago, and enjoyed it. After reading your review and discussion with Aarti I think I might need to read it again soon.

Beth F said...

I've read a few of her novels but not this one. I have to be in the mood for her.

I enjoyed the conversation.

Aarti said...

So glad we read this one together! We have such a great streak of books we choose- haven't disliked even one as yet :-)

Suko said...

This is an interesting discussion. I would like to read Atwood, but for some reason I keep putting it off.

Darlene said...

I do believe I bought this book a while back when I was perusing the bookstore. I'll have to check my bookshelf and maybe pull it out. I've been a fan of Atwood's for a while. I'm glad you both enjoyed it.

Marie said...

i love this book a lot. it's definitely one of her more difficult books, not the least because of hte mysteries around Laura. But Iris has her own mysteries too and i loved the way Atwood tells the story of these women. A favorite of mine for sure!

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I have always wanted to read Alias Grace but never got to it. I always afraid I'd get confused with the mixed narration.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I'm not a big fan of Atwood, and I'm only coming around to her lately. The Handmaid's Tale was wonderfully written. I may give this one a try. My issues with Atwood is caused my a very bad english professor and a whole semester of Atwood...

Lisa said...

Love the back and forth of your review. I really must read The Life Of Pi soon. Why you ask? Because I borrowed it from my son's gf and she borrowed my copy of this one. To get this back, I will really have to return her book. Must do that soon.

Erin said...

I listened to The Blind Assassin and very much enjoyed it. I, too, found myself wondering whether or not to trust Iris at the end, especially having discovered as much as we had about her! You wrote "The story of Iris' life could have been boring had it been written by a different author, but for some reason I find it all very fascinating," and I think that sums it up for me. The audiobook was something like 17 discs long, yet I was never bored. I kept thinking I should have been!

I had fun reading both halves of your discussion here. What a fun way to read a book!

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