At first blush, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Bloomsbury; 521 pages) seems determined to get its plot told telegraphically, chiefly through a series of newspaper clippings. A 1945 story reports on the death of Laura Chase, 25, who somehow drove a car off a Toronto bridge. An item dated two years later reveals the discovery of the body of Richard E. Griffen, 47, a prominent Canadian industrialist found dead of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage in the cabin of his sailboat. Then comes a fast-forward to 1975 and a note on the death of Aimee Griffen, 38, of a broken neck after a suspected fall. At this point, Atwood's novel is barely 20 pages old.
What links this string of fatalities? The answer, it turns out, is Iris Chase Griffen-Laura's elder sister, Richard's wife, Aimee's mother. Now in her 80s, Iris realizes that she is the only person left alive who knows the circumstances behind these deaths. Having been warned by her doctor that her heart is weak, the old woman begins, reluctantly, to write down what she remembers: "After all I've done to avoid it, Iris, her mark, however truncated: initials chalked on the sidewalk, or a pirate's X on the map, revealing the beach where the treasure was buried."
Included in Iris' memories, somewhat abruptly, are passages from a novel called The Blind Assassin, set in the 1930s, in which a wealthy woman carries on a clandestine affair with a man hiding out from the law, apparently because of his actions as a labor organizer. To keep her attention (when they aren't having sex), he invents and tells aloud a science-fiction tale about a planet called Zycron, populated by tyrannical Snilfards and subjugated Ygnirods. "I suppose this is your Bolshevism coming out," the woman teases him.
This novel, Iris reveals, was published shortly after her sister's death, and, after an initial furor about its sexual content, gives Laura Chase a posthumous literary fame that endures into the late '90s. "Laura touches people," Iris writes. "I do not."
But what does The Blind Assassin have to do with, well, The Blind Assassin? Iris also remembers the 1934 strike at her father's button factory and a handsome agitator named Alex Thomas whom she and Laura daringly hid for a time in the attic of their house. Is this "real" story the genesis of the Laura Chase novel? And how do we know that Laura wrote it?
Those are only two of the questions that Atwood raises and then thrillingly answers. Iris Chase is a brilliant addition to Atwood's roster of fascinating fictional narrators. Not only is her story sinuously complex, but she is entertaining company. Her comments on her story are crotchety and amusing: "The bank has Roman pillars, to remind us to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, such as those ridiculous services charges." She is also frank about her occasional evasions: "I look back over what I've written and I know it's wrong, not because of what I've set down, but because of what I've omitted. What isn't there has a presence, like the absence of light."
This inexorable bubbling up of the unspoken makes The Blind Assassin unforgettable.