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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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I haven’t written an in-depth book review before, but I just can’t get this one out of my head since I finished it last night. It’s followed me in a wave of melancholy and everything seems a little more painful, a little more sharp.

First, you might say, well what is such a book about? This question truly has no right answer; there is a plot, but it ambles along for the first 300 pages or so, notwithstanding the suicide that happens on the first page. This is the kind of book I have a feeling Katie Mitchell would like, after I heard her interviewed, where she talked about how it irritates her that narrative structure doesn’t work like real life works.

Well, in this book, Atwood manages to do both. The book does in fact end, with all the loose ends tied up, all curiosity satisfied. But at the same time it managed to convey the monotony of life and the sudden mortal wounds that happen on a cold Wednesday afternoon.

I certainly felt the gilded prison of the young Iris as much as I felt the prison of the memories of elderly Iris. It certainly felt real and at times tedious as I watched them stumble through life. I wanted to help them, call to them, and sometimes, yell at them. But more than anything I wanted to shake the men in their lives and say, “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?”

But there it is. The blind assassin.

Back to the plot: the closest I can get is to what I’ve already described – that it is about the cages women found themselves trapped in. But that’s not even close to all of it. It’s also about women’s relationships among themselves. It’s also about family and regret and unneeded sacrifices. It’s about tragedy that slowly unfolds and you wonder, “Why don’t the women say something?”

And there it is again: the sacrificial virgin with her tongue cut out.

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In this book you’ll find an incredibly crafted structure. Atwood cuts from old Iris to young Iris, newspaper clippings relating to their life, snippets of a “novel” about unfortunate lovers written by one of the characters in The Blind Assassin, and within that a sci-fi story. So there is a story within the story within the story. But Atwood is able to pull this off with ease: after the few pages when I didn’t expect such a structure, I quickly adjusted and was able to keep everything straight. As a writer, I can’t imagine being able to pull that off so seemingly effortlessly. And so much is left unsaid, but the reader knows, or can guess. Again, a genius at work.

And the language: just achingly beautiful. Maybe more so because lately my reading list has essentially been: Vonnegut – nonfiction – Vonnegut – nonfiction, and so on. It’s been a while since I read prose so beautiful and dripping with metaphors and imagery so rich that…well, I’m no master of metaphor. You’ll have to read and see. It’s so gorgeous, though. I lack the words.

But that is one of the major criticisms of the book: the length and the needless description. And I think it’s a valid criticism, and it’s a reason why it took me so long to finish the book. I actually almost put it down after the first 100 pages. But I think it’s purposeful on Atwood’s part, or even if not, it goes well with the book. These women are trapped in a tedium so painful with an even more painful, sinister underbelly, that all they can do is focus on the details, the clothes, the colors. In fact, Laura often serves as a counter to Iris’s steadfast obsession with these things, as well as Iris’s complacency. “But why?” she’ll ask.

And that’s why I’ll never read this book again. It is so beautiful but it’s so sad. I haven’t cried yet but I wish I had just to get this feeling out. It’s like being smothered gently. I want to help these characters, I want to stop this slow trudge to horror. But I can’t. And my heart just aches and aches and aches.

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The thing is: it’s too real. If you think your grandmothers and their mothers were immune…I often wanted to travel to the past when I was a little girl. I loved stories of knights and King Arthur and all the rest of it. But now I know what it is to be a woman in the past. I’ve known too much about what it is to be a woman in the present, but I can count myself lucky that I wasn’t alive any time earlier than this.

Ah, there are the tears. Because it’s all too true. There are times where fiction is more true than fact, and this book shows a truth that a history book with all its wars and philosophers and discoveries will never talk about.

And it’s such a heavy history, perhaps heavy with the things left unsaid. It seeps into present day; we left here bear the scars just like Sabrina. Our mothers bear the scars like Aimee. Our grandmothers like Iris and Laura both. We may deal with those scars differently – with detachment, with endless strings of lovers, with rage, with fantasy worlds, with addiction, with gossip. But they’re there, underneath. Yellowing as we go about our day, but still painful when you touch them. If you touch them.

So I can’t stop this melancholy. I read another review that said she learned from this book that pain is necessary and to find the bright spots in life, and that pain helps highlight those nice times. That’s not what I got from it, though maybe in time I will. Right now I just feel that weight, that crushing regret of all that could have been and all that sadness that was.

It was a beautiful, heart-shattering work. And I will never read it again.

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