‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 stars

An engaging mix of mystery and family drama, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood tells the story of two sisters, Iris and Laura, and how their lives were shaped by social expectations, patriarchal attitudes and historical events. The novel, which covers many decades, consists of various parts that slowly complement each other and help answer the question that is raised at the very beginning – what was the real motive behind Laura’s fate?

Laura Chase, the sister of the narrator, drove a car off a bridge ten days after the end of the Second World War. Two witnesses saw her turn the car deliberately. However, when giving Iris the news, the police officer was respectful enough to say that it could have been an accident. And, according to a news piece from 1945, after an inquest, it was indeed surprisingly considered to be an accident, since apparently Laura suffered from severe headaches, which affected her vision.

The novel contains within it a first-person narration by Iris, various news pieces and a short book written by Laura. Many decades later, Iris, who regrets not having done everything that she could for Laura, is writing an account of what happened and sharing her recollections about past events. Her ancestors owned various factories, mainly of buttons. Her mother died when she was nine years old and Laura was six. After that, they grew very close. The family was also affected by what was happening around the world. The First World War, the Great Depression and their social and political repercussions left their mark.

Her memories are complemented by the versions that people read at the time in the news. Before Iris even mentions certain events, readers already know the official version. For example, early on in the book, we read news pieces about the death of Richard Griffen, Iris’s husband and a famous manufacturer, in 1947, and how their daughter, Aimee, died when she was 38 years old, after falling and breaking her neck.

In 1998, Iris, by then an old woman, attended an event at a high school to give an award in creative writing which was named after her sister. The book that Laura wrote, which is also titled ‘The Blind Assassin’, tells a story about two people who are in a secret relationship. When they are together, he tells her tales about a fictional planet, where women are victims of atrocities. The book was extremely controversial when it was first published.

Iris’s voice as a narrator feels authentic. She believably sounds like an older woman reminiscing on her life and her family’s past, particularly the events connected with her sister. When she is recalling occurrences from her childhood and teenage years, there is a pinch of youthfulness that I also appreciated. Although what happened in the past was hurtful, she decided to write about it anyway.

“But the old wound has split open, the invisible blood pours forth. Soon I’ll be emptied.”

Although the plot progresses slowly, sometimes excessively and unnecessarily so, not only does the structure of the book arise curiosity, Iris’s memories are also enthralling. We get a clear picture about the personalities of the members of her family. Her father tried to be fair to his employees, but the First World War and the Financial Crash had a huge impact on the business. Laura got easily distracted, believed in everything too easily and was impressed by religion. As she grew up, Iris started dreaming about a life somewhere else. Her father expected her to run the buttons’ business after he died, though.

“Arithmetic had entered the picture, with its many legs, its many spines and heads, its pitiless eyes made of zeroes.”

The narrator meaningfully portrays all of the people that became part of her life without resorting to directly state their personalities. She shows a great perception about human’s emotions and relationships, despite not having realised what was happening between some of the people around her at first. As we learn more about the characters, it becomes easy to discern a connection about them and the novel published after Laura’s death.

Through the lives of Iris and Laura, Margaret Atwood explores various of the difficulties faced by women in the 20th century. The novel delves into the role of young women in a family, how women were expected to behave in certain circles, how they started losing part of their identity to please their husbands and how some men used and manipulated women.

Before what really happened to Laura is finally revealed, I came up with my own conclusions, which proved to be partially correct. That was only possible because Margaret Atwood astutely leaves small clues throughout this slow-paced story, which is full of meaningful metaphors and convincing characters.

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