Gloria Mundi's Reviews > The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
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Have you ever done one of those big 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles, ones that can take weeks to complete? When we were younger, my sister used to love them and I inevitably got suckered into helping her, on occasion. It was engrossing but not straight away. It was a bit frustrating and tedious to begin with, and then all of a sudden you'd find that several hours have passed and you've forgotten to eat but you can't stop, you just need to find that one next piece. This is what the experience of reading this book reminded me of. Completing a jigsaw puzzle, except without the helpful picture that is usually provided with a jigsaw to tell you where the various pieces are supposed to fit, so instead you see the picture emerging very slowly bit by bit and you are not quite sure how the various pieces fit together until the very end.

I was a bit apprehensive about the structure to begin with. All this book within a book within a book nonsense just sounded too convoluted and I didn't expect to enjoy the experience. There are, in fact, at least 5 different narrative strands interwoven in this book. There is the story of Iris and Laura Chase, two sisters growing up at the beginning of the 20th century between the two world wars as told by 83 year old Iris. Then there are descriptions of Iris' present life. I was quite surprised by those. I didn't expect to enjoy descriptions of day to day goings on of an old woman, attempting to do laundry, walking to the cemetery and the doughnut shop and reading the scribbles on the walls of public lavatories, yet I did end up enjoying them a great deal because those passages are so dry, so self-deprecatingly hilarious and reveal so much about Iris as a person. There are also extracts from Laura Chase's novel "The Blind Assassin", published posthumously and describing an affair between two lovers meeting in secret and, within that novel, the lurid fantasy/science-fiction story set on planet Zycron, told by the hero to the heroine, of a blind assassin and a mute sacrificial virgin who fall in love. And finally, there are extracts from obituaries and various other newspaper articles concerning the newsworthy events in Iris' life.

I am still ambivalent about whether this complicated structure works better than a more simple straightforward narrative would have. I did find the story a bit too fractured at times but, perhaps, this is a story that can only be told in this way. Perhaps, that's what gives it its punch. We essentially end at about the same place we start. The narrative is circular and the circle is used as a symbol:

"She’s the round O, the zero at the bone. A space that defines itself by not being there at all. That’s why they can’t reach her, lay a finger on her. That’s why they can’t pin anything on her. She has such a good smile, but she doesn’t stand behind it."

The story that Iris tells is the circle of rock and mountains that she imagines surrounding her, the round dome of the fake sky that suffocates her.

The writing is exquisite. I truly believe that this may well be the most beautifully written book I have read, ever. Atwood has an amazing ability to say something really profound in very few words. This is not a book to be raced through just to find out what happens. Don't expect to be able to finish it quickly, you need a bit of patience, time to pause and to think to truly appreciate this book. There were so many passages that I read and re-read so many times just for the sheer pleasure of reading them. And every so often you come across a paragraph that is so startlingly beautiful, it is almost painful.

"Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear."

"There’s a lipstick heart on the cement, surrounding four initials. An L connects them: L for Loves. Only those concerned would know whose initials they are—that they’ve been here, that they’ve done this. Proclaiming love, withholding the particulars.
Outside the heart, four other letters, like the four points of the compass:

F U
C K


The word torn apart, splayed open: the implacable topography of sex."

"When I look in the mirror I see an old woman; or not old, because nobody is allowed to be old any more. Older, then. Sometimes I see an older woman who might look like the grandmother I never knew, or like my own mother, if she’d managed to reach this age. But sometimes I see instead the young girl’s face I once spent so much time rearranging and deploring, drowned and floating just beneath my present face, which seems—especially in the afternoons, with the light on a slant—so loose and transparent I could peel it off like a stocking."

"The French are connoisseurs of sadness, they know all the kinds. This is why they have bidets."

"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too - leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back."


I could go on and on and on.

And then there was Iris. She is so drily amusing and snarky, just the kind of character I usually love. Yet she is so flawed and frustrating at the same time. She seems spineless, she accepts and crumbles. There is no resistance, no spine. Yet, perhaps, this is really a strength rather than a weakness. The strength of grass which bends to the wind and survives where trees are uprooted and destroyed by the hurricane. Does s/he who survives the longest win? Can subsequent actions truly atone for choices and mistakes made? I wonder whether my inability to forgive Iris has to do with the fact that I saw too much of myself in her or the opposite. I don't know. I was never faced with her choices. I would like to think that I would have had the backbone to stand up not just for the people I love but for myself and my own dignity. But would I really? I have pretty much always done what has been expected of me and I do quite often choose the path of least resistance. The only difference is that I grew up in a different time and environment and things that were and are expected of me are quite different to those that were expected of Iris and Laura. When the hero of the Blind Assassin, the novel written by Laura Chase, asks the heroine to leave her home (not quite with him but to wait for him) and she responds with "But I wouldn’t have any money… Where would I live? In some rented room, all by myself?", it is quite easy for me to despise her. But would my own response really have been any different given the same upbringing and social environment? In the end, I don't think Iris really needs our forgiveness. Atonement through the act of writing is not, in my view, what this book is about. It is much more complex than that.

Overall this was a very contemplative and melancholy read. Not easy or quick but very rewarding. A book to fall in love with, word by word and sentence by sentence. Beautifully written, with complex interesting characters, engaging plot and some interesting explorations of the writing process and the motivation behind setting pen to paper. Not for everyone, perhaps, but it is going straight to my favourites shelf. I intend to re-read it when I have a bit more time on my hands as I think it is one of those books that needs to be read more than once. I expect I may even enjoy the second reading more, as I already know what is going to happen and can appreciate the little clues and significant details much better.
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Quotes Gloria Liked

Margaret Atwood
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood
“Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it's noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.”
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood
“Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants.”
Margaret Atwood, Der blinde Mörder

Margaret Atwood
“I'm not senile," I snapped. "If I burn the house down it will be on purpose.”
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood
“I suppose it's everyone's fate to be reduced to quaintness by those younger than themselves.”
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood
“For the children with their greedy little mouths represent the future, which like time itself will devour all now alive.”
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin


Reading Progress

05/31/2011 "This has been slow going so far. I'm not sure this tale within a tale within a tale device is working for me. The writing is beautiful. When Atwood describes the photograph at the start, you can feel the sun on your skin and hear the leaves of the apple tree rustling in the wind but it is a story I have not really got into so far."
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Flannery (new) - added it

Flannery I've never read any Atwood. My sister (who does jigsaw puzzles with me ALL THE TIME) loves her and always tries to get me to try one. She's never succeeded, but you just did in this review. Those quotes are fantastic.


message 2: by Gloria (last edited Jul 21, 2011 12:14PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gloria Mundi Definitely give it a go. I had a few false starts with this one. The only other book of Atwood's I have read was the Handmaid' s Tale quite a few years ago. That is also an excellent book. Much more fast paced but still very thought provoking. On balance I prefer this one, I think. It's much more layered and complex and subtle. It grows on you.


message 3: by Mark (new)

Mark thanks for this. Great review and lovely to be able to see and hear examples of the beauty you described


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