The Blind Assassin is exceptional for a number of reasons: first, it ambitiously presents a story within a story within a story, jumping to and fro across periods and dimensions; second, it takes on and wonderfully spins themes and scenarios that can very easily turn soap operatic if treated a tad differently; and third, Margaret Atwood has a way with words that simply causes them to stay with you for a long, long time.
Here’s my feeble attempt at giving the reader an idea of what the novel is about without letting out spoilers: The primary plot revolves around the Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, who live most of their disconsolate lives in prominence and under public scrutiny. A parallel narration comes from excerpts of a “novel” called The Blind Assassin, which tells of the clandestine affair between a young, well-to-do woman and a world-weary dissident who happens to be a writer. In this novel within a novel, a story about a strange world is crafted by the dissident, and this story features a blind assassin as its protagonist. Intrigued yet?
Here are some of the most unforgettable lines from the novel:
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
“Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.
Thus my mother and father. How could either of them atone to the other for having changed so much? For failing to be what was expected. How could there not be grudges? Grudges held silently and unjustly, because there was nobody to blame, or nobody you could put your finger on. The war was not a person. Why blame a hurricane?”
“She did understand, or at least she understood that she was supposed to understand. She understood, and said nothing about it, and prayed for the power to forgive, and did forgive. But he can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy. Breakfast in a haze of forgiveness: coffee with forgiveness, porridge with forgiveness, forgiveness on the buttered toast. He would have been helpless against it, for how can you repudiate something that is never spoken?”
“Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It’s all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get? At the very least we want a witness. We can’t stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down.”
And near the end,
“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.”
I have to admit I was devastated by the time I finished this novel. Took me a while to recover, too, but the pain was all worth it. One remarkable piece of storytelling there.