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Why you should read The Blind Assassin, one of Atwood's lesser known novels

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Margaret Atwood, a monumental figure in the literary world and a champion of women’s voices, celebrates her birthday today. An influential author, poet and essayist, Atwood has changed the face of fiction over the past fifty years.

Her seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale, fashioned a new genre (speculative fiction) and has been the inspiration of countless debates, movements and adaptations. Yet, The Handmaid’s Tale is not Atwood’s only work. Another of Atwood’s novels which delves into the realm of the female voice is The Blind Assassin. 

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Published in 2000, The Blind Assassin takes the reader back to 1920s Canada, a time of cultural upheaval following the turmoil of the first world war. The narrative is split between the memoirs of the novel’s aging protagonist, Iris Chase and a roman à clef, also called The Blind Assassin, written by her younger sister, Laura. 

Atwood’s novel is a confusingly thrilling tale of love, loss and betrayal. As a reader, you never quite know where to stand, whether you should trust the novel’s enigmatic protagonist and narrator. Her tone is cold and almost insensitive, yet Atwood allows her some sympathy as her story is pieced together chapter-by-chapter. 

The Blind Assassin is a novel which tells of the confined nature of women’s roles in the early 20th century. Iris and Laura, although both heralding from a moneyed family, have minimal options. Atwood uses her narrative to critique the oppressive nature of their situation. Both characters are visibly affected by their situation and this is manifested predominantly in their relationship as sisters. Iris and Laura are seemingly each others’ only comfort, yet Atwood constructs their relationship as one of conflict. Alongside the other portrayals of women in the book, Atwood’s take on femininity is seemingly ambiguous in this novel. 

On the one hand, is her blatant critique of the oppressive conventions which enclose the women of the novel. Yet, on the other, the women via whom this critique is composed are themselves unlikeable. Laura is naïve and perhaps inadvertently selfish, Winifred is controlling, and Iris is hard and unfeeling.

But this is the beauty of Atwood’s narrative. Like Offred inThe Handmaid’s Tale, one is never truly sure of where the characters stand. The women of The Blind Assassin both facilitate and validate the author’s critique as we, the readers are left questioning whether their nature or nurture has made them this way, adding a new level to the novel’s narrative. 

The Blind Assassin is a thoroughly worthwhile read and one which will challenge the reader’s perceptions of who or what to believe. Alongside her seminal work The Handmaid’s tale, this novel is a testament to Atwood’s genius and deserves a place on every bookshelf. 

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