The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Magical and inventive writing, intricate yarn of a family saga, fiction, life, and confabulation are the key words that come to my mind after reading this most beautiful and bitter book. How do you describe something so captivating, so fragile, so monumental, and so ingenious?

The stories in this book, seemingly disjointed, eventually enrich and complement each other in this intricate and dainty narrative structure. The voice of Iris Chase Griffin is equally convincing, mature, and brooding. Spirituality, skepticism, secret love, obsession, the mundane, fiction and life are just some of the topics explored in this literary oeuvre.

The novel itself is a vortex that sucks you in and never lets you go without the destruction of your expectations, the demolition of your worst fears, and the pain of the inevitable.

The story within the story is also a double narrative. It is also an allegoric testimony of the whirlpool of the real life which Iris could not and was not willing to control. This story or at least part of this story were definitely not publishable in real life, at least in the form they were presented to a reader, but this far-fetched story line has a different function in the novel. This bizarre meta-text confirms our expectations and explains so many things that could not be organically interwoven into the main plot.

The main story has all the elements of the family saga: told by an elderly lady from a respectable family, regular flashbacks and reminiscences, meditations about the bleak prospects, turbulent military background for the main yarn, but gradually the seemingly reliable narrative of a familial sacrifice and a sisterly affinity sounds less and less plausible. The undertones of some other darker events gradually become more and more tangible though still verbally silent. And that is when the double fictional narrative of the book, ostensibly written by Iris’s sister Laura, and published posthumously after her death, gains emotional clout and becomes a key to unlock the doors, leading to the chamber of mysteries and tears because fiction is a reflection of our own secret lives, our desires, our sins, and our blind mistakes. So the other narrative is there to serve a seemingly utilitarian purpose to tell the story before the story is actually told by Iris, to avoid her painful confessions or to mitigate the dumbfounding effects when the dirty linen is shown to readers.

Iris is a flawed character, and some of her actions in the past are hardly redeemable, easily avoidable, and reckless with disastrous consequences. Her sister Laura is a sensitive victim who fell prey to her quest to explain the Divine or the order of things. Her quest makes Laura vulnerable and turns her elder sister Iris into the blind and accidental assassin. Iris is given the secular absolution of her ‘sins of ignorance and denial’ when her long-lost granddaughter finally comes to see her right before or after her death. The reader is left clueless here, and there is a hope for optimists that they met before Iris’s death. A pessimistic reader, on the other hand, would say that Iris was granted only a limited pardon by the almighty Margaret Atwood and could only hope to see her granddaughter who actually came but only to attend the funeral ceremony. An eternal enigma of fiction to explain and confuse persists even in the final pages of this engrossing story.

The book per se is also a linguistic delight: the language is rich and succulent, and often tart and tangy; the descriptions are keen, nostalgic, and serene; the observations are brooding and pensive, the metaphors are original and very visual.  It is an example of literary fiction at its best.

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Filed under Book Review, Classic, Literary Fiction

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