Friday, June 10, 2011

Joint Musings: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin
In her intricately woven novel, The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood gives us the life story of Laura and Iris Chase, two sisters whose fates are intertwined from their first recollections to their last.  Daughters of a dissolute and extremely wealthy factory owner, both Laura and Iris are raised in the lap of luxury by their parochial mother, but when she dies, it is up to their housekeeper Reenie and Iris herself to do the job of raising the sisters, a job that their father cannot do.  While Iris is mostly a solitary young girl and woman, Laura is more flighty and taken by strange notions and beliefs that shape her consciousness and the way that she views the world, a fact that will change both her destiny and her sister’s.
Meanwhile, running concurrently with the story of Laura’s and Iris’ lives, a third story, housed within a second, is taking place simultaneously. A young woman is having an affair with a man who is on the run, and the two are forced to meet in various abodes that he has been able to negotiate. The young man begins to create a fantastic tale for the woman’s entertainment, of an alternate universe where aliens make hostile overtures, bands of a renegade tribes are on the loose, and where human sacrifice is the order of the day. The hero of this universe is the titular blind assassin, who will go to great lengths to live up to his calling. As the story of young lovers and their fantastical story moves forward, it is sandwiched between the continuing life saga of both Iris and Laura, one of whom will end up dead under mysterious circumstances, leaving the other to carry her memory.  Both fantastically imagined, and beautifully crafted, The Blind Assassin is a triumph of literary achievement from one of the world’s most beloved authors.

I read this book with Heather from Raging Bibliomania as one of our sporadic buddy reads.  We have the good fortune of picking really great, meaty books to discuss with each other, and this one was no exception!  What follows is the first half of an (heavily truncated, for the sake of spoiler-protection) email chain between the two of us, chatting about the book.  Check out the second half at Heather's blog today here.

Heather:  I have to admit that a lot of Atwood’s writing (at least the science fiction segments) feels a little experimental at times. Almost like she is trying on lots of different hats under the cover of the one book. I actually think that I like the science fiction sections the best so far because they remind me of the Atwood that I know and have heard about. I think it's really neat the way she is almost braiding the stories together, and also find it weird, because sometimes it takes me a while to get back into the flow of the story once she has shifted gears.

Aarti:  I definitely agree about the experimental nature of her writing.  I wonder why the Blind Assassin bits are written in present tense and without quotation marks.  I always try to think about WHY authors choose to do such things and can never really think of a good reason.  It seems more like stream of consciousness, writing that way.

Heather:  I had been thinking of the whys too as I read this, and one of the things that I came up with is maybe it helps Atwood concentrate on the flow of her ideas, and keeps her from having to stop and put in all the quotation marks, but then I considered that the editors would probably do that.  The other thing I can think of is that she perhaps wants the writing to feel fluid, and the quotation marks just negate that effect.  I have seen it done in many books, but I think it takes a truly good author to make it really work.  I have a feeling that the assassin parts are written in present tense to confuse the reader a bit and keep them on their toes.  Especially when you find out the ending.  I actually wish there were more sections devoted to the blind assassin's story, but I liked it well enough the way it was.

Aarti:  I wish there was more to the assassin’s story, too!  I don’t even really remember how it ended.  I feel it was probably abrupt.  There were two alternate endings, very different, and I suppose that really describes the relationship of the two people involved in the telling of that story, too.  I am a complete sucker for the story-within-a-story idea, though!
I also spent some time trying to figure out how Atwood went about writing this story.  Did she write it the way the book is published?  Did she write one story at a time?  Did she go in some other order?  I think it would be interesting to know how the story came to her in her mind and then the process by which she transferred three separate stories, intertwined in such a manner, onto paper.

Heather:  It stands to reason for me that Atwood is so accomplished at what she does that I believe that she wrote them all the way they were presented.  That may be giving her undue credit, but I also can't imagine that she could have written these separate stories all on their own and merged them all so perfectly.  It was the perfect amalgamation to me, where all of the stories sort of led into each other and blended perfectly, and I liked that she gave hints to upcoming sections and then went on to explain them in further sections of the book.


  1. I've had this on my TBR list for sometime. Thanks for your review, Aarti -- looks like it's time to move it higher on the list!

  2. Honestly sometimes author just confuse me if they write like that. Not a fan

  3. I love "buddy reviews" - so fun to read! Atwood certainly seems to have a fertile imagination. I need to read more of her!

  4. It was really fun to read this one with you Aarti, and I am glad that we got around to tackling Atwood. I know that I would have never delved as deeply had I read this one on my own, and thought you had some incredible insight, especially when it came to Iris.

  5. I must reread this one, I read it so long ago that I've forgotten details, but I know I enjoyed it.

  6. Ooh, I'm loving this so far -- I hope you two do this again!

    I have really been unable to get into Atwood, although I suppose I do like her SF/fantasy/fairy tale stuff more than her straight up contemporary fiction. I liked The Handmaiden's Tale; I hated Surfacing

    Friends keep urging her on me and I keep rolling my eyes, but the enthusiasm you two have for this book makes me a little curious! The way you talk about her scifi reminds me a bit of the way I see Lessing's scifi -- an interesting experiment that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

  7. Anonymous6/10/2011

    I love Atwood! I'm so glad you enjoyed this book. Great idea with the buddy reads conversation in this post - it was like accidentally overhearing you two talk about a book I loved. :)

  8. I just read this one and thought it was fascinating. It took me awhile to really get into it, but it was worth the effort.

  9. Atwood is really hit or miss with me but I do love how she is not constrained with one genre. And her ideas! Fascinating.

    I liked Blind Assassin a lot but I can't remember how the story-in-a-story ended either.

  10. Anonymous6/10/2011

    This is the first Atwood I ever read. I was a lot younger then, and I remember having a lot of trouble with the beginning of the book, but I ended up really enjoying it.

  11. This was a great review! I definitely think The Blind Assassin is a good book to do a joint read on.

  12. Col - It's definitely one that gets you thinking and voicing stronger opinions than you knew you had.

    Blodeuedd - Aw, it's confusing, but GOOD confusing. I think some of it is slightly affected, but she's so good, I didn't care.

    rhapsody - Yes, she's one of those authors that I read and think, "HOW did you come up with that?!" I am glad some adults still have fertile imaginations.

    Zibilee - I'm so glad we read it together, too. I got so much more from it through our discussion.

    Fence - It was a good one to read and discuss, so if you read it, let me know and we can chat!

    Audra - We do it a lot, so I'm sure we will! The only other Atwood I've read is the Penelopiad, which I don't think is in the same style as her others, but I'll keep in mind that her SF stuff is more engaging.

    spinesandsole - Haha, I'm glad it felt like that!

    Melissa - Yes, I felt exactly the same way.

    Carrie - Yes, she really just writes whatever she wants, right? I agree, it's fascinating.

    Lola - I can see that, it's one with a pretty distinct voice that can take some getting used to.

    She - Thanks, I' glad you enjoyed it :-)

  13. This is an Atwood novel I have yet to read. I enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale, The Penelopiad and The Year of the Flood/Oryx and Crake, and will be reading Alias Grace before too long. Having read your discussion, this one is certainly going on my wishlist, I've been curious about it for a while.

  14. I have read just one Atwood and though I found it disturbing (The Handmaids Tale) it will not prevent me from reading more from her. This seems a good second choice.

  15. I've had this on my to-read list for ages, and will read it soon. I just finished my second Atwood (Oryx and Crake), which I enjoyed but something was missing... Hopefully, this book will be more rounded. I have high hopes.

  16. I've had this sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now. I really should get to it - even if it is experimental, I have really enjoyed Atwood's other works. I love how this one's stories seem so closely entwined - it sounds really good.

  17. Tracy - Wow, you've read a lot of Atwood! I've definitely got to get on her backlist soon as I found this one very thought-provoking.

    Mystica - Haha, disturbing sometimes, but not always, can put me off an author. Glad she didn't have that effect on you.

    anothercookiecrumbles - Looks like a lot of people have read Oryx and Crake! Maybe I should make that my second book, though perhaps I should go for The Handmaid's Tale, which is her other big one...

    Meghan - Definitely! It's a great lesson in complicated story-telling, that's for sure!

  18. Aarti, I think I should warn you -Oryx and Crake is one of the most disturbing books I've ever read - but read in conjunction with The Year of the Flood, which runs in parallel with it, makes it more 'palatable' (and you need to read O & C to fully understand Year of the Flood - I enjoyed Year of the Flood, it has far more dark humour in it).

    The Handmaid's Tale is undoubtedly Atwood's most famous novel and definitely worth reading.

  19. Having recently read another book that didn't quite follow the rules as far as dialogue, I am with you that not using quotations is ANNOYING and extra work for the reader.

    Not sure I would want to read this one, though I am planning on trying Oryx & Crake later this year as I kept reading how great it (and the follow-up books) were.

    Wonderful collaboration between the two of you.

  20. Fun dialogue! I loved this book when I read is last year; I hope you guys are too!

  21. I like this format! I've seen readers interview one another, but never copy out an email dialogue. Very interesting. I listened to it, so I didn't know about the lack of quotation marks. I wondered how Atwood approached writing the book, too! Everything fit so perfectly. Writing a book like this must require the ability to hold a whole lot in your head.


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