Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin started a little slowly for me.  The elderly Iris Chase Griffin begins telling the story of her sister Laura's 1945 suicide.  We then read several newspaper clips about Laura's death and other subsequent events.  We are then introduced to the novel-within-a-novel, also called The Blind Assassin, written by Laura and published posthumously by Iris.  The set-up is complicated, but what results is an expertly woven tapestry, a brilliant novel and a perfect illustration of why I read. 

In order to properly tell the story of Laura's death, Iris must first tell of their childhood.  The two sisters grew up as the affluent heirs to the Chase Button Factory, an unglamorous but prosperous business started by the girls' grandfather in the fictional Ontario town of Port Ticonderoga.  Laura exhibits strange behavior and obsession from an early age, and Iris is often in the role of her younger sister's protector.  During the Depression, the family's fortunes go dramatically southward, leaving Iris to bear much of the financial burden for both young women.  While Iris is forced to grow up too quickly, Laura remains childlike in many ways. 

Laura's novel tells the story of two unnamed lovers who meet for secretive trysts whenever they are able.  He is a poor maybe-Commie, hiding from the law and from his debtors.  She is a wealthy (presumably married) socialite, desperately in love with this mysterious man.  At its publication it caused a great deal of uproar because of its graphic (for the time) sexuality, and Laura has since become something of a cult feminist hero.

As the two stories are told, the Chase sisters' complicated relationship, and their relationships with the novel's supporting characters, are slowly revealed.  Iris's present-day worries of an ordinary older woman provide further insight into her character.  As each layer is revealed, the reader is given a further glimpse into these fascinating lives.  This is a book that makes reading a pleasure.

Next up: I'm almost finished with Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely

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