Having stuck it out through thick and thin with this sometimes complex and twisty novel, I can now truly say the experiene was rewarding. Margaret Atwood once again lives up to her reputation as one of Canada's finest fictional writers. This novel is one of those rare works that effectively blends form and content to provide an entertaining and instructive story about life in high society in southern Ontario during the 20th century. The structure - the multiple-layering of stories - takes a little sorting out, but when the big picture finally emerges halfway through the book, the reader will be rewarded with a very clear understanding of Atwood's working philosophy. The plot is mainly about the two Chase sisters growing up together in the town of Port Ticonderoga during the 1920s. They are members of a wealthy family who during the Great Depression fall on hard times and virtually lose everthing. The moments together during the good and bad times are told much later as the older sibling, Iris, reflects on the life they once lived together and how it eventually fell apart because of circumstances beyond their control. Her reflective account grapples with why she and Laura, once so inseparable, eventually drifted apart and went their own separate tragic ways. Included in this tale are moments of intrigue, love, fantasy, injustice and tragedy, all cleverly woven together around a theme that is found in many of Atwood's writings: the incredible dominating power of the male sex drive to limit and control women. These two women unfortunately fall into the clutches of Richard Griffen, an up-and-coming political star, who marries the older one to enhance his public image while sexually exploiting the younger one. This is where the inner stories cover those parts of the younger sister's life as told by Iris through the aid of letters, diaries, and a vivid imagination. There are a number of key threads running through the book that masterfully converge near the end as a common point of resolution. They include the gradual deterioration of both the Chase and Griffen family names; Iris and Laura's evolving relationship; their separate battles to gain their freedom; and the emergence of a mythical character called the Blind Assassin whose role is to seek out and indiscriminately destroy promising females in a fictional world that mirrors the real one the sisters live in. "The Blind Assassin" offers the discerning reader everything he or she could possibly want in a novel: a well-written storyline; some creative segues into modern Canadian history; and a treatment of some controversial subject material concerning feminism.
on June 24, 2003
This is a complex work of fiction composed of 3 sections woven together like the parts of an Oriental rug: 1)The first, and the main, section is a historic reminiscence narrated by Iris Chase Griffen, daughter of a Canadin button manufacturer.
Her upbringing in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario at the Avilion estate is portrayed in rich detail in a series of flashbacks, including her relationship with all members of her family and in particular, with her younger sister Laura. We are given a great deal of historic detail about this period, particularly about World War I and attempts at unionization of the button factory, and we are given details about several generations of Iris's family; in addition, both Iris and Laura's personalities are described in some detail and there are significant differences between them. 2)The second section is an elaborately detailed science fiction story which is woven between the chapters of the main narrative and is narrated by an unknown author to his unknown lover in a series of seedy apartment buildings, contrasting sharply with the opulence of Avilion. We do not understand the connection until the end. The science fiction story itself also contrasts for the most part significantly with the somewhat halcyon life at Avilion, since it includes a great deal of gratuitous violence and appears to be about some sci-fi tribe out of the Dark Ages. 3) The third section is a series of "newspaper articles" of familial or newsworthy interest which are interwoven between the other two stories. Through them, we learn more about World War I, about attempts at unionization of the button factory, about deaths in the family, and about social events significant to the family. Two of the most important deaths--Laura's and Iris's husband Richard's--are apparent suicides, and Iris's daughter Aimee also meets a violent end. All three strands are tied together in the last 50 pages with some surprising twists in the plot in the end; the whole narrative works quite well and there are no loose ends. Two of the other well- developed characters are Richard's rather assertive and colorfully-attired sister, who defends her brother at all costs, and the sculptress Callista Fitzimmons.
Still I am rather hesitant to call this great literature, since parts of it are quite "salty" and remind me a bit of Stephen King in their detail: for example, Iris describes and interprets, several times, the graffitti inscriptions on rest room walls at a local donut shop. In this and in other respects she is throwing "everything including the kitchen sink" into her narrative and one might not be totally off the mark to call the whole thing somewhat ridiculous despite its considerable historical detail.
on June 6, 2002
I love Margaret Atwood (except for the occasional clunker she's come out with - a/k/a "Life Before Man", "Surfacing" and "Bodily Harm") and was very much looking forward to her latest. And, up until the last chapter or so, she did not disappoint. I was mesmerized (I even willingly read the story-within-a-story, and I loathe science fiction tales of any type) Unfortunately, though, it seems as though Atwood was writing on a deadline, or perhaps had run out of ideas. Certainly, toward the end, the story became a bit muddled and, surprisingly, left many plot holes:...
Additionally, the language, which up to the book's climax, had been of sterling Atwood quality ("... can never stop howling") somehow becomes short and stilted. "We were lovers, you see, in secret..." When I got to that line, I had a very difficult time equating it with any other dialogue in the book. It was too blunt, too sharp and failed to blend well with the rest of the writing (I thought of several other ways in which the author could have played that scene... definitely in a much gentler manner more in keeping with her prose)
And finally, the narrator's obsession with death and "being a skull", etc. was just a bit too much after a while. Yes, we know she has health problems, we know she's elderly... but does the reader have to be beaten over the head with such blatant morbidity?
All in all, I felt a great deal of what was otherwise a wonderful story fell through the cracks and that much space was wasted on Alex's sci-fi tale (yes, I saw the correlations between the characters and the story; however, I felt that the Xenon story could easily have been cut by two-thirds and still have made a point). In fact, it seemed as though the story-within-a-story was given precedence, and the rest just kind of fell in chunks around it.
Overall, I'm glad I read this book and certainly don't begrudge the bookstore its sticker price. However, when compared to such greats as "Lady Oracle", "Cat's Eye" and "The Robber Bride", this was a definite disappointment. I have come to expect a great deal from a Margaret Atwood tale, and this failed to live up to her reputation.
Highly recommend! This has moved to the top of my list as best book read this year. Wonderful story. At first it seemed simple and I thought it was good but why did it win an award, I wasn't sure it really deserved it but by about page 250 I realized just how much depth this book had.
This is a book within a book within a book within a book and the plot unfolds layer by layer. At first the story appears to be the memoirs of an elderly woman who is nearing the end of her life. The memoir is two-fold recalling events of the past within her daily life of the present. But woven between the pages of this memoir is the text of the book "The Blind Assassin" written by her sister in the early 1940's. "The Blind Assassin" itself is a book within a book which switches between a clandestine love affair and a science fiction novella. All four stories gradually merge together and the ending is fabulous. I really enjoyed this book!
on May 20, 2002
A story within a story within a story. The novelist writting about a woman writting about a novelist (her sister) and we get the sister's novel to boot and guess what? _That_ novel is about an author. My, my.
The idea is hardly new, but Atwood brings it off very well.
The problem is that none of the stories going simultaneously in this lengthly novel are all that interesting. It's just a tad preachy and I find Margaret's stretching to put at least one pithy, quotable phrase on each page a bit tiresome. Though she has a humorus streak throughout this.
Half way through you know what's coming, no fault in and of itself, but getting to the end is not rewarding.
I'll wait for the film. THAT could be something!
on September 29, 2010
This was my first book of Atwood and it certainly encourages me to read more of her. I am fan of thick books with a historical context. And if they have good storyline and they contain humor then it is near perfection. This is certainly a book that obeys all the above criteria. As it is said in other comments, the book describes the life of a Canadian family in Ontario from the pre First World War until the end of the 20th century.
The book has three separate narratives : Iris Chase Griffen, who is 82 years old when the novel starts, tells the story of her family and reveals its secrets gradually, the newspapers and magazines articles that reveals important facts about the main characters and a third-person narrator is used for the novel in the novel written by Iris's sister Laura.
I found the first two narrative mode very interesting. I loved the parts where Iris recounts her daily elderly life with humor and sarcasm. However, I found the science fiction part in the novel within the novel long without bringing much to the main storyline. And that is the only reason I gave the book 4 stars instead of five.
on June 24, 2003
No book was ever more deserving of the Booker Prize, but one must be willing to put up with the unfolding of the plot which is something of a Chinese puzzle box. It is also a bit better than the more recent "Oryx and Crake" though that, too, is very much worth reading. "Blind Assassin" is narrated by an elderly dowager Iris Chase Griffen and it is, most broadly, a reminiscence of her complicated life as the daughter of a Canadian industrialist--a button manufacturer. A great deal of time is devoted to her and her younger sister Laura's life as a child on the estate Avilion in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario. The real world is present in the form of World War I and attempted union strikes, in this earlier age when capitalism was largely unchallenged by unions or environmentalism. Many of these events, and others of a more familial nature, are encapsulated
in newspaper articles which are included in the text. But the bigger "intrusion" in the broad narrative is a science fiction story, in alternating chapters, which we are led to believe until the end was written by Iris' sister Laura. A great deal, intentionally or otherwise, is made of the sibling rivalry between Iris and Laura. Iris is presented as the more level-headed, she marries "well" (at least it seemed a good choice at the time); Laura is more impulsive, flighty, more given to go off on a wild tangent, more artistic (she learns how to tint or colorize photographs from a part-time job as a journalist) and she ultimately dies a tragic death early in the novel. Much of the novel is devoted to attempting to understand the reasons for Laura's tragic demise. So the time frame of this novel is a series of elaborate flashbacks interspersed with the science fiction story which, in notable contrast to Avilion, takes place
in seedy apartment building in the course of a "lover's tryst"--but we don't learn the lovers' identities until near the end. In fact, there is a great deal we don't learn until the novel's final 50 pages--but it all works very well in the end. And anyone who is paying attention will learn quite a lot of history, too.
on June 19, 2003
"The Blind Assassin" is a social history of the early 20th Century from the viewpoint of Iris Chase, the daughter of a prominent Canadian industrialist. It is a portrait of a simpler capitalist age, before domination by unions or environmental regulation. Hence it is a "period piece" and also a long reminiscence by Iris, which largely focuses on the wealthier elements of society, sort of a literary "Titanic." It is an extremely detailed account of the upbringing of Iris and Laura Chase, and the impact of world events--World War I and II--on their lives, and of the attempted sympathetic response of their father to unionization. Much of the early action takes place on the Chase estate Avilion in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario, which is described in some detail. We are introduced to the Chase sisters' grandparents, their mother and father, housekeeper, and their instructors. All of these people have a significant role to play in the novel. Considerable attention is paid to sibling rivalry between Iris and Laura, and this rivalry contributes significantly to the plot and to the novel's outcome, which is somewhat unbelievable. The older Iris tends to dominate this rivalry.
The outsider in all this is Alex Thomas, a drifter and union organizer, who ultimately becomes one of the book's main characters. Again, the similarities to "Titanic" should be noted. Alex is the author of the somewhat confusing science fiction story whose chapters alternate with the other history.
He is the underdog whom both sisters protect from the rapacious capitalists' prosecution. They are both in love with him, equally. Iris' husband Richard Griffen, another industrialist, turns out to be the novel's main villain, just as Alex turns out to be its most unlikely hero.
on June 15, 2003
Unlike her newer "Oryx and Crake" a pure science fiction satire on modern Corporate America, "The Blind Assassin" is largely social history of a Canadian industrialist's family in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario, with a secondary science fiction theme that until the end seems peripheral to the main plot. The combination of science fiction and social history in alternating chapters, seemingly unrelated, works quite well until the two merge toward the novel's end. The narrator in Iris Chase Griffen, the elderly daughter of a Canadian button manufacturer. She has a younger sister Laura who invariably comes across as the less responsible of the two siblings. Early in her life Laura confronts complex personal demons that get her expelled from school. Laura has a tendency to act in a flighty manner, though we are led to believe until near the end that she is the noted authoress of the comic book-like science fiction novel "The Blind Assassin" for which she is posthumously honored. The larger part of the novel is social history and is very informative about World War I and the union movements of the '30's and the Chase family's response to them. Much of the action takes place at the Chase family's estate Avilion along the Jogues and Louveteau Rivers in Port Ticonderoga. This is in contrast to the numerous seedy apartment buildings where the science fiction novel is unveiled, as part of an unnamed lovers' tryst.
Much of the novel is an attempt to unravel the mystery of Laura's apparent suicide which we learn of in the novel's first sentence. When it comes time to marry, Iris marries "responsibly" to an industrialist, Richard Griffen, who is in a business similar to her family's. After her father's death from alcoholism, Iris and Richard take Laura in and become her protectors. It turns out that both Iris and Laura apparently had a lover's relationship with Alex Thomas, a drifter and union organizer who was accused in the '30's of setting fire to the button factory. Laura also (apparently) had an unwanted incestuous relationship with Richard, a relationship she tolerated because it protected Alex from further prosecution.
Alex, it turns out, is the author of the science fiction story; Iris is his lover and the authoress of "The Blind Assassin", and Alex is the father of Iris' daughter Aimee. Winifred Griffin, Richard's sister, and the sculptress Callista Fitzimmons are two other finely drawn characters. Which leaves the question: why did Laura commit suicide, or was it an accident? Was it because she had recently learned of Alex's death in World War II? And why did Iris try to convince the world that her sister Laura was the authoress of "The Blind Assassin" when Iris was in fact its authoress?
on May 13, 2002
This was my first Margaret Atwood book, and I loved it. I loved how the tale twisted and just when you thought you knew something, you discovered you didn't. I loved that it was three stories in one. The "science fiction" tale so many others failed to comprehend was brilliant. It was a parable applicable to the main characters. The love of the blind assassin for the maiden who was to be sacrificed....the maiden who really WAS sacrificed to save her father's company. The description of the sci-fi society and its parallels to the one in which the Chase sisters lived. It was more than just a sci-fi story, it was insight into the mindset of the man telling it and the mindset of the woman he told it to.
I read this book non-stop in two days and when I finished it, I was up half the night re-reading most of it. No, it doesn't spell every plot line out to you in black and white, but it does offer a challenge to the thinking reader, and that is what made it so interesting and provoking. The ending was clear...it became evident in the end who the mystery man and woman were, and I found the ending satisfying. I would recommend this book to anybody who loves a good story ...or two ...or three, and especially anyone who likes a plot that isn't spelled out in the first chapter.