Book: The Blind Assassin

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The Blind Assassin

Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Margaret Atwood takes the art of storytelling to new heights in a dazzling new novel that unfolds layer by astonishing layer and concludes in a brilliant and wonderfully satisfying twist.

For the past twenty-five years, Margaret Atwood has written works of striking originality and imagination. In The Blind Assassin, she stretches the limits of her accomplishments as never before, creating a novel that is entertaining and profoundly serious.

The novel opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off the bridge.” They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister Laura’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a- novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist.

Told in a style that magnificently captures the colloquialisms and clichés of the 1930s and 1940s, The Blind Assassin is a richly layered and uniquely rewarding experience. The novel has many threads and a series of events that follow one another at a breathtaking pace. As everything comes together, readers will discover that the story Atwood is telling is not only what it seems to be—but, in fact, much more.

The Blind Assassin proves once again that Atwood is one of the most talented, daring, and exciting writers of our time. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it is destined to become a classic.


The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris Chase Griffen, initially seems a little cold-blooded about this death in the family. But as Margaret Atwood’s most ambitious work unfolds—a tricky process, in fact, with several nested narratives and even an entire novel-within-a-novel—we’re reminded of just how complicated the familial game of hide-and-seek can be:

What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge, then hung suspended in the afternoon sunlight, glinting like a dragonfly, for that one instant of held breath before the plummet? Of Alex, of Richard, of bad faith, of our father and his wreckage; of God, perhaps, and her fatal, triangular bargain.

Meanwhile, Atwood immediately launches into an excerpt from Laura Chase’s novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. In this double-decker concoction, a wealthy woman dabbles in blue-collar passion, even as her lover regales her with a series of science-fictional parables. Complicated? You bet. But the author puts all this variegation to good use, taking expert measure of our capacity for self-delusion and complicity, not to mention desolation. Almost everybody in her sprawling narrative manages to—or prefers to—overlook what’s in plain sight. And memory isn’t much of a salve either, as Iris points out: “Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I’ve found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them.” Yet Atwood never succumbs to postmodern cynicism, or modish contempt for her characters. On the contrary, she’s capable of great tenderness, and as we immerse ourselves in Iris’s spliced-in memoir, it’s clear that this buttoned-up socialite has been anything but blind to the chaos surrounding her. —Darya Silver

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In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood presents her readers with a novel-within-a-novel—or, more accurately, a story told within a novel within a novel. This complex interweaving of multiple narratives draws the reader forward through a dramatic and turbulent tale of love, betrayal, and death, while simultaneously using its structural puzzles to reconsider the act of storytelling itself. The effect is mesmerizing.

Atwood’s novel begins as its central character, Iris Chase Griffen, recalls with a shocking calmness the afternoon of the suicide of her sister, Laura, just after the end of World War II. As quickly as we become immersed in Iris’s narration, however, we are taken back out again, presented first with a newspaper account of Laura’s inquest, and then with the prologue to Laura Chase’s posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin. This blend of documentary materials with Iris’s first-person narration continues throughout Atwood’s novel, with each level of the text calling the veracity of the others into question.

Iris’s narration takes the form of a memoir, written 50 years after the war, recounting the rise and fall of the Chase family fortune and relating the events that culminated in Laura’s suicide and Iris’s fall from grace. The Chases, a solid Canadian manufacturing clan, came to local prominence when, in the late 19th century, Iris’s grandfather built a factory to produce buttons from homely materials such as wood and bone. This pragmatism—a solid product, a firm but kind business ethic—is useless in the face of the crises of the 20th century, however. Just as the factory is threatened with closure during the Depression, the family itself begins to disintegrate, and Iris is maneuvered into an arranged marriage to Richard Griffen, a thoroughly modern industrialist. In attempting to save her family by making this union, Iris inadvertently abandons her ethereal, vulnerable younger sister, Laura.

Laura’s novel, a wildly successful and scandalously frank tale of illicit love, follows a young woman of the upper classes through her affair with a shadowy left-wing sympathizer hiding from the police. Their erotic relationship, fundamentally riven by their class differences, is cemented by a story told by the man, who supports himself by writing pulp fiction. In this story, which combines the devices of science fiction and tales of Arabian adventure, a young slave boy becomes involved in a plot to kill the king and overthrow his society’s abusive class system. This boy, the blind assassin of both novels’ titles, is meant to carry out this plot by killing and taking the place of a young mute girl, who is the next day to be slain by the king in the aristocracy’s ritual of sacrifice.

The drama of Atwood’s novel takes place in the often conflicting interplay between these multiple narratives. The blind assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden of the man’s tale may be allegorical figures for the lovers of Laura’s novel, who may in turn be figures for Laura herself and Alex Thomas, the radical who may have been her lover. Or they may be none of these, instead revealing some other, hidden truth about the world inhabited by the Chases and the Griffens. Similarly, the newspaper accounts of the events that take place within the novel and the historical events of the world just outside both clarify and mislead. Through these articles, the reader is led to understand the political dramas that lie beneath the novel’s personal conflicts as well as the inevitably subjective nature of storytelling itself, as all of The Blind Assassin’s many narratives are colored by their narrators’ unspoken motives.

In this lyrical, complex, and enthralling novel, through her nuanced characters and her evocative prose, Atwood once again creates a world as compelling as that of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Blind Assassin is both entertaining and intelligent, both a page-turner and a work of literature, absorbing the reader with its vividly rendered plot and characters while slyly posing difficult questions about the nature of narrative itself.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

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