The Blind Assassin | $18.98 | 544 pp.
The Blind Assassin opens with the statement, "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." Only at the end of the book, when everything about this meandering, tragic, cryptic narrative of two sisters comes to its point, do you understand this sentence, down to the significance of its indefinite articles.
From the vantage point of old age, Iris, Laura's older sister, writes the story of their comings of age in the Depression. Laura is "strange," "odd"; she has deeply-held, unconventional religious beliefs, and exhibits a naivete dangerous for a young girl who is soon cut adrift by the falling apart of her family. Meanwhile, Iris understands more about the world around her. Two men dominate the lives and minds of each of the women in complex ways that Atwood only fully reveals near the end: one is a sinister figure, wealthy and powerful; one is an idealistic activist in hiding, easily worshipped.
Meanwhile, the story of two nameless lovers, written in the present tense, third-person, close but not too close to the consciousness of the woman. They tell each other stories, they sleep together, they play emotional games. He's harsh and often needlessly brutal, she's brave but vulnerable. Then there are newspaper articles, which use an amusingly cheesy style to encapsulate in puff pieces events which often have deep implications in Iris's or Laura's life.
To say more about the plot would give too much away, even though Atwood's beautiful prose is so prominent and memorable that it might be more of a draw than the story she spins. The deft way that she weaves this story and explores the identity of the two sisters, the artistry of it, become more and more apparent and then just dazzle in the climax. Iris's voice is authoritative and convincingly that of an old woman; her view on her own actions as a young woman is slightly more distant, and so focused on trying to find out more about the people around her that sometimes Young Iris is more of an enigma than her distracted, "odd" sister. Though the people in this book are very real, they're also separate and isolated in the labyrinth of human society.
If I had a complaint it was that the first couple hundred pages started so slowly. They were beautifully written, to be sure, but almost too mysterious -- I needed more. On the other hand, maybe it kept me reading, and I'm certainly glad that I did.