Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

Allow me to preface this review by saying this was my first experience with a Margaret Atwood novel. I know...where have I been? Having read snippets of her work in various literature classes, I had yet to read a full length novel. I picked a good one to start with.

A novel within a novel, Atwood’s literary masterpiece about love, death, and war takes you places you’d rather not go alone, but will do because it’s Atwood leading you along. This isn’t a novel set only earth, but in faraway, dreamt lands, with spaceships and women made of peaches. The Blind Assassin is the story of the Chase and Griffen families; both have been affected by war and time in different ways. Captain Chase marries off his daughter, Iris, our narrator, in order to save his family inheritance, the Chase button factories, only to lose it all anyway when the unions come calling, and the rich Griffen renigs on his promise to save the factories. Iris is shuttled off to Toronto as a new bride and is placed into a social scene where she is inept, and a life where she is merely a piece of furniture in need of polishing.

Iris is the eldest Chase daughter, and the one responsible for Laura, her younger sister. Their mother dies when they are young, and they are virtually all but ignored by their father. Iris is the typical elder sister, but Laura is not a typical little sister. Laura is very literal and all must watch what they say lest she takes them seriously and actually does their meaning. Laura is frustratingly scatterbrained and dreamy, with no real sense of the world or its dangers. Iris, more responsible and level headed, but just as uneducated, is the pick to be married off to save the family business. She is taken away from her home into a cold world of money, power, and cruelty. With her new life come new clothes, new people, and a new family which sees her as a project. Iris all but loses her sense of self while under the thumb of her husband, until an old friend comes back into her life.  But who is the stranger, and is it Iris that is meeting with him?  The novel jumps back and forth between Iris, and two lovers.  We enter a third person point of view that would seem an abrupt change if it wasn’t for the difference in story. This way, we never know who the lovers are until the very end. However, you don’t lose the rich imagery with the point of view change, as we still get a sense of the squalor conditions the lovers must meet in. “There’s a small window, bars across it; the remains of a curtain. Rust-coloured light comes through it. They’ve propped a chair against the doorknob, a chair with most rungs missing, half matchwood already.” (Atwood 284)

Both Laura and Iris symbolize how little power women had in the time between WWI and WWII.  Atwood crafts both Laura and Iris alike enough to be sisters, but also with a separateness that makes them two completely different people. Richard Griffen is painted as an uncaring husband that humors his wife while lying directly to her face. We have no idea of Richard’s treachery until the very end, and it helps explain why Laura’s attitude was so harsh towards him. The dark forces you sense at work throughout the novel come to life as Iris learns the truth behind his actions and Laura's actions.

While reading this novel, it was quite easy to keep up with the two different stories and their time periods. Atwood masterfully blends the two plots and there are no issues of getting confused with what was going on with which character. The devastation of the depression and the return of soldiers after the war lend a desperate theme to the lives of Laura and Iris. The storyline would be completely different if not set in these times. Women had very little sway in the world, and were expected to keep to lunches, and organizing the home. Their intelligence wasn’t thought much of, and Atwood does a service to Iris making her seem intelligent, but not overstepping her role as wife to Mr. Richard Griffen, important businessman. While Iris chaffed at this, she kept in line and did what she was told. There was no other recourse for a woman with no money of her own. While Iris was a strong person, she didn’t stand up for herself until she learned the complete truth. She took a huge risk leaving her husband with her daughter and little money. Only the threat of blackmail is what saved her. It was her only means to get away and back into a more normal life, even it if meant losing her daughter.

At the end, Iris simply ran out of time, and perhaps that was the assassin in this book. Time ran out for Mrs. Chase, for Captain Chase, for Alex, for Laura, and finally for Iris. Iris does the only thing she can do, set the entire story down for her estranged granddaughter to read. “But I leave myself in your hands. What choice do I have? By the time you read this last page, that—if anywhere—is the only place I will be.” (Atwood 549) There were no choices for Iris; she lived with what she was given, and what she could make do with. This applies to her life as a young and respected Miss Chase, and an older, wiser, Mrs. Griffen, widow. Iris had very little control over her life, and when she did have some control, she used as best as she could. Iris’ life was sad, full of grief, loss, and loneliness, but it was also one of strength. Her longing for her granddaughter is evident at the end, with the hope she will come to her before she dies. Atwood leaves you with a sense of loss—for what Iris and Laura’s life could have been—and what it really was.  This was a deeply touching novel, and one every person should read, even if it's just for the women made of peaches.


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