A long novel that borrows from the family saga genre, but recasts it in a literary form. It’s difficult to summarise, because of the intricacies of relationship that make up its substance.
Iris and Laura Chase are brought up in a privileged world, which collapses in the Great Depression. Iris, the elder sister, is married off to her father’s business rival, Richard Griffen. He takes over the Chase button factory and suddenly both girls are under his care. (And that of his evil sister, Winifred.)
The story is told by Iris as she nears death in 1999. Scenes from her present life intersperse the flashbacks to the fateful events in the 1930s and 1940s. We also read extracts of Laura Chase’s novel, The Blind Asssassin, published posthumously. It describes an illicit affair between a wealthy woman and an itinerant fugitive. Together, they concoct a fantasy world involving the Blind Assassin.
As we read the extracts from the Blind Assassin, we assume it’s Laura having an affair with the communist agitator she met at a picnic. But the ending reveals that Iris wrote the book as a memorial for Laura. Iris herself had an affair with him, and revealing this to Laura was enough (maybe) to drive Laura to suicide. (After Laura was repeatedly raped by Richard and had a forced abortion.)
For me, the highlight of the novel is the enigmatic Laura. She is such a wonderful character – dreamy, otherworldly, full of an entire world no-one else enters. She is passionate about religion. She cuts the bits out of the family Bible she doesn’t like. And then there’s this story:
On bread days Reenie would give us scraps of dough for bread men, with raisins for eyes and buttons. Then she would bake them for us. I would eat mine, but Laura would save hers up. Once Reenie found a whole row of them in Laura’s top drawer, hard as rock, wrapped up in her handkerchiefs like tiny bun-faced mummies. Reenise said they would attract mice and would have to go straight into the garbage, but Laura held out for a mass burial in the kitchen garden, behind the rhubarb bush. She said there had to be prayers. If not, she would never eat her dinner any more. She was always a hard bargainer, once she got down to it.
(You can read more Blind Assassin quotes on my quotes blog: http://othervoices.wordpress.com/tag/atwood-margaret/ )
For me, the weakness of the novel is all the chopping and changing. I like a more linear narrative.