The main thread of The Blind Assassin is the written accord of an elderly woman, Iris, now poor but once wealthy, recounting her early 20th century life in Toronto and Port Ticonderoga, Ontario. In between these chapters are split a novel written by Iris’ dead-by-her-own-hand sister Laura, titled The Blind Assassin. For the sake of clarity, every time I mention The Blind Assassin in this review from hereon, I mean Laura’s book and not Margaret Atwood’s. The stories within stories motif continues further in The Blind Assassin as it follows a nameless first person protagonist having an illicit love affair with man who tells her sci-fi stories… about a blind assassin. In between those novel chapters are newspaper clippings detailing the lives of the major figures in the primary narrative.
All of these threads are intertwined, and reading one allows you to make assumptions about the others. They tie together by the end, and questions are answered, in what is not so much a twist as a gradual reveal. This is where the narrative is most persuasive and compelling: piecing together the clues of what happened leading up to Laura’s suicide, deciding who is who, and why The Blind Assassin was written in the first place. There is a hint very early (the sci-fi storyteller making a lewd comment about his lover’s body of all things) that apprises the careful reader that something is not as it seems here.
The problem is that the story is split unevenly — Iris’ recollection of her youth takes up the vast majority of the 500+ page novel. Her story, while very well written, is absolutely something we have seen before. The political/gender/class tumult following the Great War. The fall of old money and the rise of new. The Old World is dead and so is God. Again, it’s well written. Iris as protagonist is not so much likeable — in fact, sometimes her actions are incredibly disappointing and there is a lingering sense that she was purposely ignoring clues that darker goingons were afoot — but instead a character you become more and more invested in as the story goes on. It’s sort of shocking to read a sympathetic mother who has such a negative opinion of her adult daughter, and this is compounded by a short scene where said daughter is described and you realize Iris was right about her. But then you remember the story is told via an unreliable narrator — Iris herself.
But the what happened? strand is strongest and the book could have done with more of the in-story love affair/science fiction tale of the blind assassin. There is so little of it that it sort of ruins the conceit it could have been a full-length, published novel. Then again, it’s my cynical belief that The Great Gatsby’s longevity and place in the American consciousness is heavily imputed to it’s length and how easy it is to read, so maybe The Blind Assassin could have followed suit.
I will also admit a bias against the bildungsroman. Both as a personal preference and because I find authors so rarely nail the passing of time and the changing of places and people particularly accurately or believably. I enjoyed this novel. I feel like this review is giving off a considerably more negative vibe than how I was feeling as I read the book. Seriously, it was good! So, I am not sure if this is something that I would consider an exception to that bias or if that bias is the key to why I feel like I should have liked this book more than I did (or at least wrote a more positive review).