Cannonball Read #42: The Blind Assassin


Reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was an interesting experience. It was the April Book of the Month on Pajiba, and I wanted to participate without being told what happened. I wanted to experience it for myself. I normally write my Cannonball Read reviews  without reading others’ opinions, and this time my opinions became clearer after reading every0ne’s comments and blogs.

The Blind Assassin has a lot of layers. The narrator, Iris, tells us the story of her life through tales of her parents, her sister Laura, and the town in which they grow up. Iris eventually marries her father’s rival, Richard, and tries to ensure the family’s button business  will survive.  Richard and his sister, Winifred, come to dominate the sisters’ lives in terrible ways.

Another layer is the story of the blind assassin, told to a woman by her lover. As we read chapters about this novel we determine that the lover is Alex Thomas, a man from the sisters’ past, but we’re not told who the woman is until the end. Then there’s the layer of the “present day,” what the elderly Iris experiences as she goes around town, gleefully reading bathroom stall graffiti.

I got to the discussion early and posted something, and then went on with my day.  I must say it was so hard not to check back in, but I really wanted to finish without spoilers.

In the writing of that first comment, even while I was writing it I thought ‘Oh that’s how the time was then,’ agreeing with Teabelly’s comment that Iris was a prisoner of circumstances.  I even drafted several lines to that effect but erased them. I wound up focusing more on the language of the novel, which was indeed outstanding. I kept writing phrases down on the sheet of paper I used as a bookmark. Lines like this one Iris and Laura’s parents living with the unsaid accusations and guilt of wartime adultery

“He can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy. Breakfast in a haze of forgiveness: coffee with forgiveness, porridge with  forgiveness, forgiveness on buttered toast.”

The book was filled with language like this that made me wish I could write as well – language that took my breath away.

Then I finished the novel and went back to read everyone else’s thoughts.  Here’s my ** SPOILER ALERT ** for the record…

I’m glad I didn’t know in advance that Iris was the writer of the ‘The Blind Assassin” in the novel.  All along I did “know” that Laura wasn’t really the writer. As I said on Pajiba, I don’t think that I ever considered Laura as the author of the novel with a novel, she didn’t seem grounded enough in reality to write something coherent.  I just figured she was writing Alex’s words – just as Iris said “I didn’t think of what I was doing as writing — just writing down.”

We do find out that Iris was Alex’s lover in reality, but Laura loved him to, though from afar. Laura’s love for Alex is her Achilles heel, and Richard uses it to blackmail her into having sex with him. And even more despicable, he impregnates her and sends her off to an institution to abort the child.

The final piece of the puzzle is Laura’s death. We’re told about her death in the first sentence of the novel:

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

But we don’t find out her motive until the end. The mystery of her suicide drove the novel for me. The revelation of the events leading her to it, Iris’s obliviousness to those events, and then the question of her culpability was excellent storytelling. It made me call into question the entire novel. In fact, I went back to read the moment that Iris finds out about Alex’s death, to see if there was any inkling of Richard’s blackmail of Laura. Did I miss some major clue? But no, the characters of Richard and Winifred are the most one-dimensional here – they are not even referred to by name.  This is extraordinarily effective. We’re sucked into Iris’s point of view entirely here, the platitudes in this chapter speak untold volumes:

Don’t let it upset you.

Don’t take it to heart.

Forget it.

Iris telling the truth about her affair with Alex is what sends Laura to committ suicide. Looking back on it, Iris tells us she should not have told Laura the truth.  Should she? I’m undecided. “The truth will out.”  Laura would have found out eventually – is it better that Iris told her?

So here’s how my opinion changed, or rather solidified. Sophia really tuned into the ” suffocating and depressing” treatment of Iris.  And Teabelly called Iris a “prisoner of circumstances.” I thought so as well.

Jen K. raised the question for discussion about whether or not this is a feminist novel.  I questioned that at first, but that’s what has changed for me.  Bas mentioned that the novel could be considered passive feminism. It’s true that it’s not right in your face.  However, if you’re moved at all by Iris being stuck in her societal and historical cage and THEN you look at some of the political rhetoric these days, yearning for times gone by, how can you not want to fight for women’s rights? I’m not normally a political person, but  it seems to me that the conservative right wants to put women back in this situation: where we can be carted off to a mental institution and quietly given an abortion; where loveless marriages are arranged by men; where people can’t be with the ones they love; where interracial marriages are taboo. When we talk about the “good old days,” just what is good about them?

Iris made her own choices, but she felt like society gave her no choice. Modern society has a lot of options available to women, and we must stand up, speak out, and take them. This is a lot to get out of one novel. I hope you’ll read The Blind Assassin yourself and see what you can take from it.



  1. This was so well thought out, and the last bits about feminism and today made me think.

    I think the writing and language of the book are what bring me back to it time and again, I just love the way Atwood uses words. But there’s also Iris. She really gets under my skin.

    • Thanks! I had a lot of fodder with everyone else’s blogs and comments.

      I love Iris too. I couldn’t wait to get back to her chapters!

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