THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood was the last book I started in 2012 and the first I finished in 2013. The author has the kind of multifaceted talent that makes you sigh with equal parts delight and despair. She manages to weave meaning and wisdom and heartbreak into every lyrical sentence.
THE BLIND ASSASSIN is a story of what happens to two sisters when their prominent family turns derelict during the Great Depression. A family arranged according to the patriarchal values of wealth and power above all else, leaving love somewhere below the surface, somewhere they can never quite find. By the end of the book, all of the characters have been killed off, victims of betrayal, war and suicide. Except for Iris, the narrator, who is now an old woman and determined to leave behind the scandalous truth for her estranged granddaughter, Sabrina, to decipher.
At first, I wasn’t sure what was going on, since this novel contains a somewhat convoluted web of stories and places. But this is part of its beauty, I believe. You have to pay attention to detail to understand exactly where you are, which setting you’ve stepped into. And then, at some point, you have to let go and allow your subconscious brain to connect all of the dots by itself, melting the metaphors into something cohesive for your conscious understanding.
One of my favorite themes: you don’t have to live according to the history of your ancestors, you can be a blank slate. People with unknown parentage have no choice about this matter, and though it is challenging to not know where you come from, it is also a gift. It is freedom to create your past and therefore your future. Of course, the only character in the book who got close to it was an orphan of unknown ancestry, Alex Thomas, and hopefully Sabrina, the family’s last chance at redemption.
What if the rest of us were also free from the constraints of our history? We could be anything.
While I waited for the story to seduce and draw me closer, which it did in a big way, the hypnotic prose kept the pages turning. Something dark lurked under the edges, around the corners. You knew it from the first line: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
Some of my other favorites, since this novel does beg to be quoted:
“Was that the beginning, that evening? It’s hard to know. Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
“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 labeled bones.”
“She imagines him imagining her. This is her salvation. In spirit she walks the city, traces its labyrinths, its dingy mazes: each assignation, each rendezvous, each door and stair and bed. What he said, what she said, what they did, what they did then. Even the times they argued, fought, parted, agonized, rejoined. How they’d loved to cut themselves on each other, taste their own blood. We were ruinous together, she thinks. But how else can we live, these days, except in the midst of ruin?”
“How could I have been so ignorant? she thinks. So stupid, so unseeing, so given over to carelessness. But without such ignorance, such carelessness, how could we live? If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you’d be doomed. You’d be as ruined as God. You’d be a stone. You’d never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning. You’d never love anyone, ever again. You’d never dare to.”
“But thoughtless ingratitude is the armour of the young; without it, how would they ever get through life? The old wish the young well, but they wish them ill also: they would like to eat them up, and absorb their vitality, and remain immortal themselves. Without the protection of surliness and levity, all children would be crushed by the past – the past of others, loaded on their shoulders. Selfishness is their saving grace.”
I give it five stars. Thanks to the Tipsy Lit Book Club for inspiring me to pick up this fine piece of literature.