I cannot remember the last time I checked this book out from the library. All I know is that it was a long time ago and I never finished it. But this time, I was browsing the shelves for a new read, and somehow this inner craving spoke to me, told me, “If you run out of ideas, check out a Margaret Atwood work.” I remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale some time when I was in high school, but I cannot remember the plot of the book other than the fact that these women lived in this oppressive dystopian society where the only purpose they served for men was to bear them children. I was also rather young when I read it and so I couldn’t really get why such a society would exist (I still have yet to see the TV adaptation of the novel). Because I sped through The Handmaid’s Tale, I cannot remember whether or not I liked it or not.
The Blind Assassin took me some time to get through, but I guess that is why I need to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale because I didn’t approach it with the same care as I did (or at least tried to, anyway) for The Blind Assassin. As I have found out by reading even just two of her works, Atwood’s books are not quick reads; they take quite a bit of time to digest, and for a good reason. It isn’t easy to talk about abortion or anything related to sexism or reproductive rights, and Atwood wants readers to sit with these topics for as long as possible. The Blind Assassin is a little over 500 pages (for the hardback copy) and it packs in a whole lot of details that you might want to take notes of while reading. I only jotted down a few notes but wished I had written more descriptive notes about the characters. And the themes are also quite deep, themes such as family, loss, grief, and womanhood in a time when women had to adhere to strict social norms in order to fit in.
I won’t give a boring plot summary because that would ruin the book, but to make it short, the main plot of the story takes place between the 1930s and the 1940s in Canada. It is about two sisters, Iris and Laura Chase, who come from a well-off family in Toronto but struggle as they get older when their father’s business starts to suffer during the Great Depression. Iris, who is still a teenager at the time, marries to a much older and wealthier man named Richard so that her family can support themselves financially. Laura has her own relationship with a man named Alex, but her family disapproves of him because they suspect he is an orphan and would lead the family into further financial ruin. However, Laura is adamant about following her own path, not just in relationships but in life in general. The novel opens up with Iris saying that Laura drove her car off of a bridge on May 26, 1945, just ten days after World War II ends, and describes the complex events that led up to Laura’s death. In between chapters dedicated to Iris’ first person account of growing up with Laura are the chapters of Laura’s science fiction novel The Blind Assassin, and in between both Iris’ chapters and the chapters of Laura’s book are obituaries and news surrounding Laura’s death, as well as the death of other members of her and Iris’ family.
This book isn’t just one of those novels within a novel; it is a combination of science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and coming of age drama. I say coming of age because Iris narrates how both she and Laura grew up together, from their childhood to their present lives as adults. It helped after I finished reading the book to go back to the beginning and read the opening pages, because these opening pages give away the end of the book rather than leaving the end for the reader to figure out. I think what got me through this really deep work is Atwood’s powerful use of language and dialogue. It moves like melting butter, and even when I wanted to finish the book as quickly as I could so I could put another book on my reading log (trying to read 50 this year), I simply could not speed up because I wanted to re-read the way Atwood described a particular scene or character. Of course, this is a dark book with a lot of plot twists that made me go “Oh no he/she didn’t!”, and Laura’s death was obviously quite depressing. Still, there is something magical about Atwood’s writing. I wanted to savor this book rather than get caught up in plot summary (which is probably why my synopsis of the book is so short), and I think Atwood granted my wish. The ending for example was so profound I had to read it at least three times in order to truly understand how powerful it was. Atwood’s writing is spellbinding.
I cannot wait to delve into another one of Margaret Atwood’s works! 🙂
The Blind Assassin. Margaret Atwood. 524 pp. Copyright 2000 by O.W. Toad, Ltd.