Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
So begins this gritty and panoramic tale of two sisters by the exceedingly inventive and much-adored Margaret Atwood. This novel is told in a Russian doll format, each story opening up to reveal another story within, and another story within that, and another within that. We begin with the aged perspective of Iris Chase, a frail and lonely octogenarian writing her memoirs concerning her childhood with sister Laura (and the events leading up to her suicide), and travel inward from there.
Being the novel with which I chose to make my Atwood début, I knew when I had finished The Blind Assassin that this was the beginning of an ardent and enduring love affair with her work. Reading this felt very much like a voyage spanning many centuries and planets and universes and lives. It’s a breathtaking mosaic, a gasping conglomerate of social commentary, pulp science fiction, and gripping whydunit. The fertility of Atwood’s imagination really is something astonishing. Layer upon layer of stories are peeled back, slowly and incrementally, to reveal an elaborate mural of decadence, war, sacrifice, power, and truth. And even that doesn’t seem to cover it.
How did she do it? How did she manage to so effortlessly combine stories from such an array of genres, and make it work? At times the pieces seemed incongruous – what on earth can twentieth-century Canadian socialites have in common with lizard men from the planet Xenor, erotic peach women and blind child assassins? And yet, it worked.
Atwood draws on disturbing parallels between the rigid social hierarchy of Sakiel-Norn on the planet Zycron, and that of Iris and Laura Chase’s own, less primitive world of Port Ticonderoga, Canada, in the early twentieth century. “Then as now, [Science Fiction] is a form that allows an exploration of social structures in a more direct and possibly more entertaining manner than does social realism.” Atwood wrote in 2013 for The Guardian.
The Blind Assassin demonstrates this perfectly. Sacrificial virgins and divine messengers may seem a far cry from 1930’s Western civilization, though Atwood proves us wrong in that regard. The sacrificial virgins of Sakiel-Norn are compared to pampered society brides, their cut-out tongues symbolic of the silencing of women. It is subtly and disturbingly reminiscent of Iris’ arranged marriage, to the economic advantage of her father during the Great Depression. Divinity, cruelty, and hierarchy are also prominent themes that link the two worlds. The message is clear: though the world around us might seem vastly divergent from that of the planet Zycron, with its five moons and violet oceans, its society echoes our own ancient history – history which, as we know, tends to repeat itself. Despite the science fiction elements, this book felt raw and real. In bleak and beautiful prose the worlds are rendered, every bit as realistic – and ruthless – as each other.
The novel focuses in on the ways certain characters unwittingly bring about the demise of others. Among the hired throat-cutters of Sakiel-Norn, (whose blindness only enhances their stealth and brutality), it is a saying that “only the blind are free”. This resonates just as much with characters in a parallel worlds who remain free (free from guilt, free from liability for their actions) as a result of their “blindness”. Their despicable snobbery, ignorance and deceit is concealed from public view, and their sheer lack of comprehension for the damage their actions cause allows them to do this.
Ultimately the question posed to us is this: who is responsible for Laura’s death? What is truth and what is fabrication? This is when the story’s multi-layered format works to potent effect. There were times when I had to remind myself that the novel-within-a-novel by Laura Chase, is not actually describing events within the main narrative, and that its female protagonist is not Laura herself. Or is it?
This confusion, and the way it forces us to draw false conclusions, is integral to the ways in which the novel makes us question if we really know what is going on, if we can separate the truth from lies, reality from fiction. The various newspaper clippings scattered throughout are used to supplement this theme – are the news stories giving us the whole truth? Doubles, parallels, confusion, ambiguity, deceit – mirrors and shadows, disguises, secrets – all are used to create a work of gripping and sinister allure.
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
This series of narratives examining the dynamics of social hierarchy, religion and war within various different – and equally vivid – settings, is transfixing from the very start. Its characters are often deplorable, always memorable. This is a historical-tragedy-scifi-mystery-memoir-thriller, a book you won’t be forgetting in a hurry; a sprawling, brilliant, expertly crafted work. I’m really glad I began my foray into the world of Margaret Atwood with this novel, and can only dream of the great sapience and imaginative power the rest of her many writings have in store.