Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin has been herald as one of the finest novels of the 21st century. And it is. Yet, it is perhaps a novel that often gets overlooked because of it’s “sci-fi” billing. Don’t’ get me wrong, I ADORE sci-fi/fantasy novels. In fact, at least eight out of ten trips to my local Borders Superstore will find me ensconced amidst the aisles, books in hands and no decision in sight. And perhaps, because of its billing as sci-fi, that is exactly why I picked up The Blind Assassin.
Atwood follows in the footsteps of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, depicting a story within a story (within a story, within a story ad nauseum as there are more than one set of nested stories between the covers of this novel). One story is that of the sisters Iris and Laura (as told by the older Iris) and what befalls their old-money family over the course of two World Wars and is told in a confessional/memoir manner by Iris Chase Griffen as Laura is dead by the opening pages of the book. The other story is a novel written by the younger Chase sister and depicts the clandestine meetings of two ill-fated lovers. If that’s not mind boggling enough, with in the pages of this fictitious novel–coincidentally titled The Blind Assassin–there is another set of stories told by the male lover to his unnamed female counterpart. Whew!–you still with me?
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is how subversively feminist it is. Don’t get me wrong, there are times that the characters act out prescribed gender roles and in fact Iris spends a large part of her time pondering how these roles affect her place within the story as well as how they have changed not only for her, but for other female characters. She spends, for example, time comparing the roles assumed by her caretakers (first Reenie when she is a child, and then Reenie’s daughter when she is an old woman) and the freedom that these women are allowed in comparison to good, upstanding high class citizen such as her. In a sense, she spends a lot of time unpacking what Peggy McIntosh calls The Invisible Backpack. McIntosh theorizes that we each carry this invisible backpack of privileges–men have theirs (the patriarchy), “whites” vs. minorities, women vs. minorities, etc.–and the elements within our backpacks are not items that we’re necessarily conscious of, rather just inherit based on who we are biologically and racially (for more in-depth information, see here).
While McIntosh primarily focuses on white privilege, the concept can be applied to feminism and the patriarchy as well, and in turn those concepts applied to a reading of Atwood. Through the various story-lines, the characters tend to the challenges presented to them by their “invisible back packs,” some times succeeding in rising to and exceeding expectations, other times failing miserably, until the very ending. Each time a situation or challenge is presented, the reader finds themselves both secretly hoping that Iris will rise above her assumed “station” in life and surprise us, and even though we’re not surprised when she doesn’t (or reveling in the minuscule triumphs she does manage to attain) we intuitively know why she can’t–she’s lugging around this extremely large, extremely heavy sack of things she can and can not do, things that are proper and things that are not. Her sister, Laura, in a sense is a foil to Iris’s properness. While Iris willingly sacrifices herself on the alter of propriety, Laura flaunts her willfulness and self preservation in its face. The reader spends a large portion of their time being frustrated, openly and secretly wishing that Iris would just shuck off that damn invisible backpack and embrace freedom.
Atwood deserves the accolades that she is given. She is a gifted storyteller who never makes her readers feel as though she is holding back even when she is. And it wasn’t until the very end of this novel that every thing finally came together and the Big Reveal happens that this reader found herself going “Atwood you tricky little minx!” Though the character’s “backpacks” may be socially constructed, they do, in the end, have the right to unpack them and toss the contents aside.