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THE BLIND ASSASSIN

Only the Blind Are Free in Margaret Atwood's latest novel

By Denise Dumars     January 05, 2001

Margaret Atwood's latest is part woman's novel, part science fiction novel, part mystery and part history. It is political, as are nearly all of Atwood's works to some extent; it is literary and it is SFnal, as are nearly all of Atwood's works, making her virtually unique among modern authors. 'The Blind Assassin' is a novel-with-the-novel, a science fiction story published posthumously by Laura Chase, who committed suicide at the age of 25, just ten days after the end of World War II. The novel by Margaret Atwood, also titled The Blind Assassin, is narrated by Laura's sister, Iris. And it is a marvelous tale indeed, but not a happy one.

In the (real) novel, the first mystery we encounter is Laura's suicide. The story, we understand, is being told by Iris who is now an old woman, but it begins with Iris and Laura's childhood. From them we learn of Canada in the Depression and during WWII. This is not the progressive Canada most of us are familiar with today; this is a fearful Canada, scared of the red menace, the trade unions, isolationist even to the point of turning a blind eye toward Hitler's atrocities, until Mother England forces them to take sides. It is not a nice place to live, especially for women.

Laura is a dreamy, sensitive girl who pores over the Bible and poetry, loves helping people, and does not understand the pragmatism of her older sister, Iris. When their mother dies, Laura begins her long descent, endingperhaps inevitablyin suicide, and Iris makes so many compromises in her own life in order to save it that she's scarcely likeable as a protagonist; I can see where many younger readers would not understand the choices women had in those days and would perhaps actively loathe Iris.

But she is our narrator; we're stuck with her, and whatever else she does, she truly seems to love Laura and be the only one who can tell Laura's story. Lots of tragedies befall the Chase family, and finally Iris marries Edward Griffen. He is 35 and she is 18. He is very rich, very conservative, has an eye for young girls, and may have defrauded and cheated Iris's father. There's no love between the two of them; Iris sees the marriage as a way to 'save' herself and ultimately her sister when their father dies.

Interspersed with the story of the Chases and the Griffens is the story of a woman who is cheating on her husband with a man who lives in a series of squalid rooms, where he pounds out space opera for the pulps, earning a meager living while helping leftist causes and ultimately going to Spain a la Hemingway. Earlier in the novel we see that Laura had a crush on this man; we also see that he is capable of writing intelligent, thoughtful science fiction, but in the 1930's and '40's there's no market for the stories he really wants to tell.

In these chapters, the writer and his lover tell each other the story of The Blind Assassin, a lyrical science fantasy of a planet where young girls are sacrificed to gods that everyone knows do not exist. The rich wear masks, but if the middle classes are seen wearing them they are immediately demoted to slaves. As children, the slaves work on intricate carpets until they are blind. Once blind, they are sent to work as prostitutes or assassins, as it is said the best assassins are blind. We learn that there is a motto among the slave children: 'Only the blind are free.'

The book is the story of Iris's life and death. It's a sad story, punctuated by moments of joy. The SF writer in it is a romantic figure, the sort of blue-collar hero women have affairs with and yet he is no romance novel stereotype; Atwood's understanding of Leftist politics and of science fiction writers makes him much more than that. Richard, the evil husband, is a sort of stock character, which Iris herself admits in her narrative. Laura is the slippery one. Is she a visionary? A truly brilliant, sensitive girl who could have written a highly-acclaimed SF novel like The Blind Assassin, or is she merely weak, a victim, driven mad by events which the stronger Iris is able to withstand? She was the character in the novel that I wanted to know better, and if there's any flaw, it's that Laura is not drawn as completely as I would like her to have been. Ultimately, however, this is Iris's story; she's telling it and we see what happened through her eyes,. As a stylistic technique, perhaps we should accept that she told us all she knows about Laura.

There are yet more mysteries embedded in the narrative besides the essential mystery of why Laura Chase drove her sister's car off a bridge. Who really wrote The Blind Assassin? Who are the people who meet clandestinely and spin the tale? Many secrets are revealed, which make the story, in some ways, a woman's novel, which is not to say that men wouldn't enjoy it as well. It's densely packed, so it's something to be savored and enjoyed, not skimmed. Atwood's prose, as always, is wonderful. Here's one book you can give your mundane friends to read to help them understand science fiction and science fiction writers; your mystery fan friends will like the turns and twists; and yes, there's a science fiction novel entwined in it as well. The Blind Assassin has already won Britain's Booker Prize, and will no doubt win others as well. It gets my highest recommendationat least for anyone who isn't, themselves, at about the point of driving off a bridge.

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