An excellent novel, right up there with Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Banville’s The Sea as one of my favourite Booker winners so far, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is a book that spans genres and invokes various types of text, moving from love story to science-fiction novel, from telegrams to newspaper clippings, as it tells the story of the Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, daughters of a broken industrialist in inter-war Canada.
It’s hard to really describe the breadth of vision Atwood displays, because, ironically, the book’s focus is so narrow. It somehow manages to be a compelling romance, a social history of Canada in the 20th century, a treatise on aging, a pulp sci-fi adventure (no joke) and a murder mystery of sorts, while always remaining tightly focused on the lives of its two main characters, Iris and Laura Chase. Dealing with issues of history and memory, love and imagination, the violence and oppression to which women were subject in the early 20th century, and the practice of writing itself, the main action of the book plays out against a background of the First and Second World Wars, and the Great Depression. This may all sound confusing and overstuffed, but it isn’t. That Atwood is able to deal with so many themes, events and textual forms while never losing her focus on the personal story of the Chase girls is a testament to her skill as a writer.
The Blind Assassin is not just a good story, though. Atwood’s prose is brilliant, and her imagery is beautiful and evocative. It’s a pleasure to read an engrossing page-turner that is also beautifully written, as so much contemporary fiction seems to have one quality or the other, but rarely both.