If there were ever any remaining doubts, The Blind Assassin dispels them: Margaret Atwood can do anything and everything with prose. She also does it effortlessly, so that to read her is to be in the grip of a narrative momentum usually associated with popular fiction. This rare combination of verbal felicity and narrative drive, not to mention a mordant intelligence, is what makes her novels so uniquely compelling.
Atwood has long been adept at ransacking genre fiction for her own ends. In Bodily Harm, it was the spy thriller; in The Handmaid's Tale, future fiction; in The Robber Bride, a chilling riff on the gothic transported to the far reaches of the sex wars; in Alias Grace, an astute take on the historical crime novel. In The Blind Assassin, her tenth novel, the genre offered for our and, one suspects, her own delectation is pulp fantasy.
This virtuoso culling of popular forms makes each of her novels a surprise. It is, however, only part of the story - nowhere more so than in this new book, where the pulp fantasy is a lovers' elaborate bedtime tale told within a posthumously published novel, entitled The Blind Assassin, by one Laura Chase. Laura is the dead sister of Iris, the 83-year-old narrator of Atwood's architectonic fiction, who is herself writing a memoir of lives brutally punctuated by two world wars.
Atwood orchestrates these contrapuntal strands without ever missing a beat, to give us a soaring narrative of a century of passionate betrayals, both political and personal. She plunges right in: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." Why 25-year-old Laura Chase should have willfully or accidentally plunged to her death is the motor of the plot. It is also the engine which drives Iris's memoir.
This takes us into the riches-to-rags story of the Chase family, scions of the small-town of Port Ticonderoga, dominated by their button factory until the Depression washes wealth and jobs and their tormented war-hero father away. In an attempt to save both town and family, Iris is sacrificially sold into marriage with a rich Toronto industrialist, whose Nazi sympathies and political ambitions are the public face of more intimate bullying.
Iris's bones ache with history. Her legs are unstable, her heart more so. Yet her mind, as she evokes the past and scours the present, is as wittily trenchant as Atwood's own. A prisoner of privilege in her youth, Iris's adult days are lived in the long shadow of her sister's tragic death, followed a few years later by the hushed-up suicide of the husband she has divorced.
Laura's posthumous novel has provoked first scandal and then a cult following. Flowers are placed on her grave. Graffiti refer to her. Students and biographers send begging letters, only to receive caustic replies from an Iris shrewd in the ways of secrecy.
Laura's novel, which begins almost as soon …