8. Reading: The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2001, Virago) is a book about the cruel workings of families. Even though there’s no actual assassin in it, several people die along the way. The protagonist Iris Chase describes the life of her sister Laura, who committed suicide at the age of 25. This story is intertwined with Laura’s posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin, a mixture of science-fiction and dime-novel romance. The overall topics in recounting the short life of Laura and it’s repercussions in the life of Iris are intrigue, moral and provincial high society, and how things are covered up in families for the sake of guarding appearance. It is unclear to what degree all family members were conscious of rotten apples, but they get to a point when they can no longer be ignored.

I like to imagine that Laura could have been autistic in a time when this diagnose would not yet exist. She’s often described as special, taking things all too literal and relating colors to feelings, among other things (I know, this is a very simplistic idea of autism, and I’m convinced the lightness of the “traits” is intentional from the author’s perspective). The story also shows how the abuse of one family member can affect the life (and effectively screw) of others, it’s lesson about how all play their parts in the conspiracy, and that one has to break off to actually break the cycle. Yet, in the end no one is right, and nothing is going to be right ever again.

When I was younger, I would close to never read books of more than 200 pages. I think Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 changed my mind here. However, I still find it astonishing how different long books work. The moment I actually get engaged in the stories is when the average 200-pages book already comes to an end. The art clearly is to make you read those first 200 pages, of course. Atwood made it, and by the middle of The Blind Assassin I almost didn’t want to put it away, and only did so because it was late at night and I had to be fresh for another day in the field.

How did I come across the book?

It was a Christmas present from a befriended couple. They said they thought it might be interesting to me because it treated topics like family memories, and because the author had a reputation for developing multi-dimensional female characters. Boy were they right.

When and where did I read it?

I took it to the field and started on the plane there. Since it is quite a doorstopper, it took me a while to finish. I’m glad I took it, and certainly hadn’t expected it would fit so nicely with my research interests in the genesis of middle class family life. Even though it is placed in Canada, it gave me some inspiration on what topics to look for in the interviews with my informants here in Colombia. So one answer to my earlier query about what to read in the field might be to tempt fate and take something you didn’t even think could be useful there.

It was only three weeks after this that Aimee fell down the stairs. I mourned her, of course. She was my daughter. But I have to admit I mourned the self she’d been at a much earlier age. I mourned what she could have become; I mourned her lost possibilities. More than anything, I mourned my own failures. (p. 533)

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