"Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." The first sentence of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize-winning novel, 'The Blind Assassin', (Bloomsbury; 521 pages) plunges the reader into a mystery — was it suicide? an accident? a murder? — that takes the rest of the book to resolve. The extended journey toward enlightenment leads, via the memories of a woman on the threshold of death and in a variety of narrative techniques, through the history of Canada in the 20th century.
Having been shortlisted four times already for the Booker Prize, Atwood reacts to her success this year with characteristic wry humor. "Think of all the practice gone to waste. The congratulatory handshake, the brave smile ... Who was better equipped not to win it?" The prize-winning novel takes the form of a memoir written by 82-year-old Iris Chase, with some interspersed contemporary news reports, and follows the decline of a Canadian bourgeois family from the glory days of the 19th century through the post-World War I depression that wrecks its business. More intimately, the book focuses on the relationship between two sisters as the aging Iris attempts to come to terms with Laura's death and her own involvement in it.
A third narrative strand is a clever pastiche of a novella, published in Laura's name after her death, which describes a clandestine affair between a wealthy young woman and her lover, a radical on the run for unspecified crimes. Much of the action of this novella consists of the man, a writer of science fiction, improvising a fantasy in the style of the Weird Tales sci-fi magazines of the '30s. His tale concerns the city of Sakiel-Norn — a long-dead civilization on a distant planet — a cruel and sophisticated society renowned for the skill of its child carpet weavers. Blinded by the constant close work, they find that one of the few trades left open to them is that of assassin. Other abused children in Sakiel-Norn include chosen virgins whose tongues are cut out before one of them is ritualistically raped and sacrificed for the good of the city.
Bizarre though this story within a story within a story may seem, it reflects on the real world — science fiction is often used to provide oblique social criticism, especially under repressive regimes. Thus, chapters about the sacrificial, tongueless virgin and her relationship with the blind assassin who plans to kill her are interspersed with passages of Iris' memoirs of her loveless marriage to an industrialist, which was virtually forced on her as the only way to revive her father's fortunes, and an account of both sisters' relationship with a young agitator to whom they give refuge in their father's mansion. This effectively links the family's destiny with that of modern Canada, as we see the rise of a new, ruthless and philistine class of self-made men, and at the same time the growing menace of European fascism.
"It's a book about an older woman, about the age of one of my uncles," says Atwood. "It's real life, it takes us through several decades. I could say it's writing about mothers, writing about sisters, which I hadn't done before." The broad timespan of the novel allows Atwood to examine the effects that World War I had on Canadian society at the time. "[The war] is one thing I wanted to write about. It ruined Uncle Freddie, my father's older brother. He was in it. He got gassed, and was never the same. So I wanted to write about that."
Implicit in this novel is the difficulty of conveying experience accurately in words, a preoccupation of Atwood's earlier novels. The heroine of 'The Handmaid's Tale' (short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1985) is trapped in a cruel dystopia that stifles free expression, banning women from even reading and writing. 'Alias Grace' (Booker short-listed in 1996) tells the story of a real 19th century Canadian, Alice Marks, who was jailed for almost 30 years after a notorious double murder for which her guilt was never incontrovertibly established. "A lot of what is written down is either wishful thinking or spiteful gossip," Atwood says. In 'The Blind Assassin' she keeps us guessing, as the narrator moves us through her own developing understanding and acquisition of knowledge, until the tragic event described in the book's first sentence can be fully understood.
A virtuoso feat of construction and psychological examination, 'The Blind Assassin' suggests not only the tortuous paths that lead to understanding but also the subterfuges by which humans prevent themselves from confronting unpalatable truths about their own actions. Written with wit and compassion, this justly rewarded novel is a disturbing and moving entertainment.