Throwback Thursday is a periodic feature about books I once loved, no matter how embarrassing (or awesome!) I find them today. The first and only installment in this series so far took aim at the Twilight novels.
Today I’m featuring a very different book: The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood’s 2001 novel about two heiress sisters, Laura and Iris, who navigate privilege, patriarchy, and regret in Canada through the 1930s to today. It’s heart-rending from the very first line, narrated by Iris:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
From there, it never stops being deeply sad, although it can also be very funny, and at time it seethes with a rage so intense that it’s terrible (in that word’s original sense of inspiring terror) to read.
In addition to the story of Laura and Iris, The Blind Assassin also contains many fictional news stories and a novel-within-a-novel. I normally dislike the use of pretend news stories in books: it’s very rare for an author to get the tone of a real newspaper story just right, and the information they’re trying to convey often comes across as painfully obvious and hack-y. Luckily, Atwood nails it. I can’t even imagine how many 1930s-40s news stories she had to read in order to get the imitation right.
But it’s the novel-within-a-novel that’s the star of the show, and rightly so: it’s so pitch-perfect that, even if it were read separately from the rest of the book, it would still be achingly lovely and memorable. It’s told from the perspective of an unnamed couple–a wealthy woman and a working-class man on the run–who are having an affair. Together, they tell each other a hard-boiled science fiction story set on a faraway planet where a decaying society is ruled by a cruel and corrupt upper class.
In that world, a blind assassin is assigned to kill a mute woman who’s intended to be brutally sacrificed. Instead, they fall in love and plot the kind of escape that the unnamed lovers telling the story cannot.
We’re told that this novel-within-a-novel–titled The Blind Assassin, of course–was written by Laura before her suicide at the end of World War II. Iris, by now an old woman, guards her sister’s legacy and begins to write her own story (though at first it’s unclear whom she’s writing to).
The reason The Blind Assassin has meant so much to me over the years (it’s been my favorite novel since I was 14) is because, in addition to being beautifully written, it’s a painful reminder of how complicity and cowardice can destroy a life. Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, also tackles this, but where The Handmaid’s Tale is ferocious, The Blind Assassin is slippery. The consequences of complicity in The Handmaid’s Tale are as subtle as a cleaver; in The Blind Assassin, they’re more like those mythical razors embedded in sweet candy apples at Halloween.
Iris is difficult, without being so boneheaded that I stop being able to understand or support her. Vain, frightened, and proud, she clings to what she knows and resists introspection. She wants the cachet of being a class traitor but can’t tolerate the discomfort of actually doing the betraying. She fails to protect Laura again and again, culminating in Laura’s suicide; she fails to protect herself, and you get the sense that it’s on purpose, as a sort of pointless punishment in place of the substantive change she desperately needs to make instead.
Most of all, it’s the very end of The Blind Assassin that haunts me (page 521 of my battered paperback):
What is it that I’ll want from you? Not love: that would be too much to ask. Not forgiveness, which isn’t yours to bestow. Only a listener, perhaps; only someone who will see me. Don’t prettify me though, whatever else you do: I have no wish to be a decorated skull.
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.
Like Iris, I often write simply because I want a listener; I want to exist somewhere, anywhere, outside of my own head. The Blind Assassin reminds me that I can do more than simply leave my words and deeds to someone else. I have a choice: speak now or speak later, long after the time to make a change. I hope I always choose to speak now.