The Blind Assassin


blind assassin


My apologies to those who’ve already heard my thoughts on this book. I liked it. A lot. More apologies to those who expect some sort of synopsis of the book in a book report. We don’t do that here. While I can’t promise coherence of thought, I will offer two warnings. First, Kim needed aspirin after reading what follows. Second, I’m halfway through another of Margaret Atwood’s – Alias Grace.

After reading The Blind Assassin, I tried writing a review. Instead I scribbled some words into a cheap notebook and went on an opera binge. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, loud and non-stop. And I SING. My musical talents are not largely appreciated here. Eyes roll. They beg me to stop, but I can’t. I’m inspired.


When I am laid, am layyy-ed in earth…  

Remember meee. Reeemember meeee. But, ahhh-ahh-ah, forget my fate…

Remember me. But, ah, forget my fate.


It started like this:

This is the life story of Iris Chase Griffen as she would tell it to her estranged granddaughter, conversational but in letter form. (Because they’re estranged. Pay attention please. This is the easy part.) In this first of three overlapping stories people are not always what they seem. At least Iris isn’t. There’s the persona of the complacent child, the granddaughter of…, the daughter of…, the wife of…, the sister of… and then there’s Iris herself. She’s wry. She made me laugh. There’s something else you should know about Iris though. The people around her tend to die dramatically. Murders? Suicides? She’s like the Greek goddess of the same name, sent to do the job of death and set souls free. Murder? Suicide? It’s hard to tell the difference.

Then there’s the story-within-a-story. Her sister Laura’s novel, also titled The Blind Assassin, follows the love affair of a married society woman and a pulp fiction writer on the run. Their meetings invariably include sex and a story. Yes, I know. You think that’s wonderful. So do I. The story he improvises for her is pure fantasy; an escape. Like their relationship, like sex, like death.

It’s also the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Sci-fi packed with zombie women and spaceships and lizard men in flammable shorts, invented by the lovers and mirroring… what? Society? Themselves? An assassin made blind by unconscionable child labor is tasked with killing a sacrificial maiden made mute to silence her protests. The two, so abused, find solace in one another. They find love. The true identities of this inner story’s blind assassin and mute sacrifice seem obvious, but nothing is only what it appears on the surface. Hold that thought. In sorting the classical references and symbolism I begin to feel I’m following the spiral of a nautilus ever further in. I’m dizzy. The myth of Dido and Aeneas is central, with Iris to cut the golden cord binding Dido’s soul to her body. Or is she Dido, awaiting another Iris to do the same for her? And what of her sister’s novel? Is she the sacrificed maiden? Yes. Is she the assassin? Yes. Is she mute? Blinded? Yes and yes. Here the whole story spins back out for me. I can find a way to pin those labels on almost every character at some point in the book. The vertigo is back.

I ignored the quotes at the beginning of the book. I generally do. But look what I found when I went back and read them at the end. Three epigraphs, three themes: blinded children left to sing the songs of those that don’t survive, death as escape, the power of words. Three themes, three nested stories, three suicides, three love triangles… I’m reminded of the ancient symbol of three interlocking spirals. A triskele.

But maybe I’m reading too much into the book. Maybe it’s just a painting of a woman’s life. Two sisters surrounded by dark shadows of tragedy and the historic objectification of women, a love affair in bright colors to draw the eye away, the negative space of death to rest in. In short, life.

Turn the music back up, please. I feel an aria coming on.



  1. Sheila said,

    July 29, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Very nice!

    You’ve reminded me I need to read this book.

  2. flakyartist said,

    August 3, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks, Sheila. I hope I haven’t given too much of the story away. One reason I tend to avoid synopsis type reviewing is fear of spoilers. The other is I can’t do it as well as the publisher, so why bother?

    This was the first I’d read by Margaret Atwood, but I’ll be back for more!

  3. Anonymous said,

    August 8, 2009 at 8:20 am

    Great review!

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