Think of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin as a more raw, less fanciful, historically grounded The Handmaid's Tale. This novel depicting women trapped by circumstances and society is as forcefully feminist as her now-classic story. A novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel, this richly layered effort allows its constrained characters the freedom that comes with giving a voice to their stories.
Set mainly in the manufacturing town of Port Ticonderoga in 1930s Canada, The Blind Assassin jumps right into its narrative. The first thing the reader learns is that the narrator's sister dies an early death in an apparently deliberate automobile crash. The second thing discovered is the tale of the furtive affair between a moneyed woman and an equally nameless fugitive. In that story, itself a slim novel published posthumously under the narrator's sister's name, the man weaves a fantastic pulp science fiction story for his lover.
The narrator is Iris Chase Griffen, the fallen, aged daughter of one businessman and widow of another. Through her own telling and through editorialized newspaper reports, it is quickly made apparent that being born into privilege is in itself no proof against tragedy. Iris' sister Laura dies young, followed in a few short years by Iris' husband; the girls' mother had died during their early childhood. Iris' daughter, living a life of reckless abandon, also meets an early end; her' granddaughter is taken from her by a conniving sister-in-law. The Blind Assassin is a family epic of a sort, a gradual unfolding of the ways in which women allow themselves to be trapped, and too the small independences they manage to find in hidden corners of their lives.
From the time of Iris and Laura's insulated and odd childhood, we become familiar not only with these two as people. We become intimate with the trappings of obligation and love in the same way that the girls do. As they grow into young womanhood, the two discover that the world is rather more likely to close in around them than it is to open itself up as a vista of discovery. But each is able, in her own way, to make a secret space for happiness in lives otherwise given to sacrifice. That they fail themselves and one another more often than not is nothing less than a plain truth about the darker side of human nature. What makes The Blind Assassin such a triumph is Atwood's undeniable ability to make even the pain of a tragic life luminously lovely.