Daily Archives: January 25, 2012

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Published: for World Book Nights 2011
Paperback: 641 pages
ISBN: 978-1-86049-880-0

AUTHOR’S WEBSITE: http://www.margaretatwood.ca/


Minet Library – http://www.facebook.com/pages/Minet-Library-Lambeth-Archives/182910281761857


The elder sibling Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her younger sister’s Laura’s death. Like no other character within the book, she examines all details before her time runs out, however, on the other hand… 


Before I read this book ‘The Blind Assassin’, as part of the Reading Group of Minet Public Library, I read to get familiar with the author’s writing style, which was written by her too, another book called ‘Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer On Writing’ by the same author, which I own a copy of, that is when it came out alittle later than ‘The Blind Assassin’ as a stand alone book, and its a short study guide, as she talks in-depth about what writing actually ‘means’ and how reading is also important to what is ‘gifted from its insight’ when it comes to a book and any of this kind in its form, such as ‘The Blind Assassin’ which is presented to the Reader.

So therefore I knew that reading the book ‘Negotiating with the Dead’ give me a fore-taste, and would ease me into her way of writing narrative prose and to ‘hear’ her vision on matters, because although all appears normal on the surface, by using a specific reading technique; a nuanced one, as you get into the book you find there are under-currents worth exploring too, in the plot and theme of the Blind Assassin, which gives this book a texualized richness. For she says within this book of ‘Negotiating with the Dead’ that:

“Talking is very old, writing is not. Most people learn to talk when they are infants, but many people never learn to read.  Reading is decoding, and in order to do it you have to learn a purely arbitrary set of markings, an abstract formula.” (page 46)

Buy book on Amazon: Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

This one quote from ‘Negotiating with the Dead’ helped with understanding why she wrote the way she did for ‘The Blind Assassin’ generally and when it came to do the review for this book. As her views on writing and that of the character of Iris, is pretty strong on their creative processes which are markedly similar. 

For you were set a blind task to decode through-out the book, you have to ‘trust the purpose’ literally because Iris is talking like someone elderly but her writing is lively. And this comes across from the text of ‘The Blind Assassin’ because there’s much left unsaid and unfinished, as you feel from the book that there is a shortened space of time left too, not hurried so much to have a fast pace to the flow of words in the narrative, its just that there’s a feeling that time isn’t on your or her side to complete the mission in the body of work, and thus each word, each sentence must account for something, and each phrase must count its cost. As one of the character’s states:

“…Sometimes you don’t like me very much, she says. I can’t think about much else lately, he says.  But liking is different. Liking takes time.  I don’t have the time to like you.  I can’t concentrate on it.” (The Blind Assassin: The lipstick heart, page 31)

And that abstract formula is carried through the book in two ways: Religion and Moral Trust. And this is because it’s the mainstay of what keeps them going on, whether they like it or not, whether they believe or not, whether they care for it or not, it leaves a trail and a process of active thoughts as for example it states:

“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.  Impossible of course.  I pay out my line, I pay out my line, this black thread I’m spinning across the page.” (The Steamer Trunk, The Blind Assassin, page 345)

This is very much moralistic in its tone, about life and how as individuals we interact with it, because even if you’re not writing down truth, you can’t assume visually that you won’t be read either, and that is one of the premises of the book ‘The Blind Assassin’ because even if God doesn’t come to read her words in printed form, there is another person that is known who could; without even waiting for the finished copy to be published: is that of the Holy Spirit of God, and as the character states: “The real author was neither one of us: a fist is more than the sum of its fingers.” (The Heap of Rubble, The Blind Assassin, page 626) And this was the message that Iris did have some sort of faith afterall, however you only realised it later on in the book, that she wasn’t an Atheist, which you might have been lead to believe.   

And I thought about this, and this way it took me so long to write this review, for surely I felt that coming from such an upbringing of a duty-bound background, something must have been heartfelt religiously within her! As she spoke to no-one about how she was dealing with life, no friendship outside of peers, only that of adult company, so who was it that Iris turned to during those times when she required that of stability?!

Because the elder sister, Iris, didn’t put her trust in God, unlike her mother, who was a devout Methodist, or younger sister, Laura, who was also a Methodist although with fanatical leanings to what religion and God stood for, literally and unqiuely, and that of their father, who was an Anglican, although losing his faith in God when he returned from the War, and never regained his trust in the Lord back, even with the encouragement from his wife to still uphold his religious creed, he didn’t, although he wasn’t an Atheist either, for as Iris says it wasn’t a term yet invented nor was it up for discussion with his children.

But with Iris you couldn’t tell so easily, but you only became aware to that of her affinity with that of the Holy Ghost much later on, if you hadn’t written off the book due to not ‘getting it’ as a form of repentence, and not given it much thought, as everything she wrote was ghost-like and spiritual, and the Holy Spirit, who to her was a ‘Trans-cultural Metaphor’ which being the ‘living bird’ is represented as a Dove, and it could be decoded from within the book because all of Iris’ experiences she gives in the most poetic views of how she sees Creation, as from the standpoint of the Holy Ghost first viewing the waters of the Earth, right from the begin she doesn’t see herself in the spotlight but her presence is called for and that of being a helper to others, but all this was given through a personal absorption when she writes as its says:

“I look back over what I’ve written and I know its wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.  You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together.  But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth.  Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind.  The living bird is not its labelled bones.”  (The chestnut tree, page 484)

Which meant for this book that there’s an underlying unity of the confessional as well as the contemplative lives of the characters, and in that and from that premise, the book has no predictable quality to it, that we as Readers can also identify with in reality, as so much of our own lives are withheld from view, that is, even from ourselves, as in the novel it states on page 632:

“The picture is of happiness, the story not.  Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out.  In paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys.  Its loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward along its twisted road.”

And all this was purposefully set out in the complexity of the novel, because for a time, while we also read it, time has stood still, we do come back to read it at intervals to continue onwards, much as we do in our own lives, and that’s how the book’s format takes us along. As you’ve lost that sense of ‘Paradise’ that you might have held onto in an idealized way, this book shakes that off, but this is because there is not a natural flow, there’s no sense of a re-enactment of trying to write wrongs, nor give explanations for actions or thoughts, what you do get is raw emotional longings of things that hadn’t a chance to flourish within themselves as well as in the social world.  What really brought this home was when I read that line “In paradise there are no stories because there are no journeys.” They end. You don’t do anything in Paradise, you just stand still unmoved and unstirred. But does that mean in Hell there are many stories with differing roads as well as journeys. As said in Paradise Lost by John Milton:

”So without least impulse or shadow of Fate, or aught by me immutablie foreseen, They trespass Authors, to themselves in all, Both in what they judge and what they choose; for so I formd them free and free them must remain, Till they enthral themselves: I else must change Thir nature and revoke the High Decree, Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain’d Thir freedom, They ordain’d Thir fall…” (page 26, Paradise Lost, by John Milton, PC Kindle version)

And for me that sums up the book, because in alot of the character’s traits, there was no telling who was doing the writing, the editing and the publishing; especially of the completed novel of Iris’ which should have remain hidden in the trunk, but it didn’t work out that way, for we have read it, and thus would she have wanted it public anyway is questionable. So was the revenge unknown to even Iris by its publication without her consent; the lawyer who knew where to find it, perhaps even Myra had it published for the memory regarding what her mother Reenie was like as a loyal person, or was it the grand-daughter who decided to publish the book as a combined bind-up, as some sort of payback: hence the title of the book ‘The Blind Assassin’, for we’ll never know, because it’s a book within a book of another book which we’re reading; a confessional, testimony and a tribute: a memorial (their heritage) within a memorial (the siblings keepsakes) within a scrapbook journal as a written memorial (the people around them that emphasised their lives) but with a betrayal and some very tragic outcomes born from deceit all round.

Along with that, each character mentioned falls short, within their own flaws, as they weren’t well-rounded people nor well adjusted, although none could see it, even from that of the Reader’s interpretation, as they were enthralled with themselves, as each character comes to pass and live even through a brief moment, the author dies alittle as they move across the page in creating because there’s no second chances in this type of abstract novel, for the Readers’ play that of Revelations and divine retributions, that is the Reader of the book becomes God in Judgement, the Holy Ghost as Comforter, or the Devil’s Advocate, and the absence of Jesus as Love, but as with all of them, its hard to judge them without entering into cliques, and taking into account their motives, blind convictions and chances, yet still, they and us remained free, and in what they themselves judged we might not have given such thoughts, and to what they choose throughout the events, we came to our own conclusion as Readers.

Overall, this book would be very resourceful in the many discourses that could be entered into as part of an educational set book due to the subject offerings that can be pulled out of the book eg. historical perspective, feminism, sexuality, class structure, religion, industrial welfare, war, sibling rivalry, inter-racial romantic relationships, the ethical practices of the commercial media and that of women in society, to name but a few. As well as for being beneficial to Reading Groups to have a lively discussion regarding the different Reader interpretations that could arise. But last, but not least, for just being a read definitely worthwhile. It deserves to become a ‘Classic’ book. 


“Jesus sits at the right hand of God,” she said, “so who sits at God’s left hand?” “Maybe God doesn’t have a left hand,” I said, to tease her.  “Left hands are supposed to be bad, so maybe he wouldn’t have one. Or maybe he got his left hand cut off in a war.” “We are made in God’s image,” Laura said, “and we have left hands, so God must have one as well”, She consulted her diagram, chewing on the end of her pencil. “I know!” she said “The table must be circular! So everyone sits at everyone else’s right hand, all the way round.” “And vice versa,” I said.  Laura was my left hand, and I was hers. We wrote the book together.  It’s a left-handed book.  That’s why one of us is always out of sight, whichever way you look at it. (The Heap of Rubble, The Blind Assassin, page 627)


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