Why you should care
Because this work shows Atwood’s remarkable versatility in full and fervent bloom.
Unless you were on the receiving end of Amazon’s week-early dispatch of The Testaments, chances are you’re only just getting stuck into the much-anticipated, mired-in-mystery follow-up to Atwood’s phenomenally successful The Handmaid’s Tale. But before diving into the already-Booker nominated The Testaments — an “overly neat” but “surprisingly fun” novel, according to The Guardian — consider (re)visiting Atwood’s first Booker-winning success story: The Blind Assassin.
This dense, complex novel — at 500-plus pages, it’s also one of Atwood’s meatiest offerings — can be a disorienting experience. Yet even a noted historical fiction skeptic (like me) will be enthralled by the unspooling mystery, sardonic asides (“For my birthday she gave me a pair of oven gloves shaped like lobster claws. I’m sure it was kindly meant.”) and poetic prose; I gobbled up The Blind Assassin in under 24 hours.
… a sprawling family saga peppered with death, deceit and disappointment.
Divergent in both tone and style to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the speculative fiction classic for which Atwood is undoubtedly best known, The Blind Assassin (2000) is a multilayered and deftly plotted work of autobiographical and historical fiction set in 20th-century Canada. In just the first few pages, layers of family history and mystery unfurl by way of a trifecta of memoir flashback, newspaper clippings and novel-within-a-novel narratives. It’s around Iris — our now-octogenarian protagonist and witty narrative anchor — that these myriad elements swirl and eddy, coming together to form a sprawling family saga peppered with death, deceit and disappointment.
Which might seem like a bit of a tough sell for die-hard Handmaid’s fans. However, ripples of sexual violence and victimization, as well as an exploration of atypical female relationships in a world populated by women and run by men, certainly bring Gilead sharply to mind. Even so, The Blind Assassin certainly offers a welcome relief from Atwood’s almost trademark unrelenting dystopia, even though “it’s hard these days with what’s happened in the world to call [The Handmaid’s Tale] dystopia. It seems almost realistic, you know?” observes Sherrill Grace, Atwood scholar and professor of English at the University of British Columbia.
Published at the turn of the century, you could write off The Blind Assassin as a cacophonous mess of elements — in fact, some critics did just that. After all, it brings together mystery, war, romance, deft political and historical commentary by way of several narrative skeins, including a present-day memoir and that aforementioned novel-within-a-novel roman à clef narrative (served with a light sprinkling of sci-fi fantasy, because why the heck not).
But for Grace, The Blind Assassin is possibly Atwood’s] best-ever novel. She describes it as a tour de force for combining “fascinating maneuvers of point of view and maintaining mystery and yet making a whole range of important points about history, about the present, the past and what could be happening in the future.” And it’s all as relevant today as when it published, she adds.
“I see The Blind Assassin as very much a kind of hearkening back to her approach to the novel which we saw in The Handmaid’s Tale,” Grace says, arguing that The Blind Assassin is a “brilliantly done” transition novel of sorts, bridging the gap between her early and later works both in terms of approach and genre.
There’s certainly something for a range of readers tucked into its transitional pages. Take The Blind Assassin’s novel-within-a-novel, which is attributed to Iris’ sister Laura Chase and also, confusingly, called The Blind Assassin. There, pulpy sci-fi elements speak to Atwood’s later forays into dystopian fantasy with Oryx and Crake.
Grace also believes The Blind Assassin was more influential than people give it credit for. The “melding of fictional autobiography with history, with mystery, with lost and found documents and identities … these are issues that are being addressed by a lot of writers these days.” Who? Elena Ferrante, Rachel Cusk and fellow Canadian Sheila Heti, to name but a few.
For readers on the hunt for an underrated Atwood immersion, Grace also recommends Bodily Harm (1981) and Cat’s Eye (1988), in that order. But whether you’re an Atwood novice or a superfan looking to revisit the prolific writer’s expansive back catalog, start with The Blind Assassin, which, nearly two decades out from publication, still speaks with a fresh voice about powerful men, politics and female victimization.