In another time or another headspace, I might have given this five stars. If I ever re-read, I probably will. Unfortunately, my brain was just not in the mood for a long, measured, thoughtful, historical literary fiction novel when I read this back in April (!). I should probably have done the audiobook instead. (Anyone know if it’s any good? I’ve never heard of the narrator before.)
*Have I EVER been in the mood for a Margaret Atwood? 🤔 I somehow managed to read The Handmaid’s Tale three times, so I must have been at some point.
So, this book—which until very recently was the book I’d owned the longest without reading—was originally published back in year of our lord 2000. Our main character is Iris, and most of the book takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, as elderly Iris looks back on her life, writing down what happened to her and the history of her family. But this is not a simple historical fiction novel. It’s told in layers. Iris’s recollections are only one of those layers. The others are excerpts from a novel written by Iris’s sister Laura, she of the first sentence of this book fame: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
Laura’s novel, titled The Blind Assassin, details a love affair between an unnamed man and woman in the 1930s. The woman is wealthy and the man is lower-class political radical, and eventually a fugitive, so they have to sneak around to meet. During their meetings, the man (who is an author of science fiction pulp stories) begins telling the woman a science fiction story about a planet called Zycron, the plot of which is basically the center of the Matryoshka doll that is the story of this book, as it parallels the lovers’ experiences, and those of the real-life lovers that inspired the book (presumably Laura and and an unknown man). Laura wrote this novel before driving off the bridge, and Iris published it under her name posthumously; the novel eventually won its deceased author great renown, and not a little controversy because it so explicitly showed its protagonist (and by extension its author) engaging in behaviors that very much broke the social code at the time. (They had sex! GASP and he was POOR.)
The final bit of story layer is the excerpts from newspapers telling of events that happened in relation to Iris’s recollections, in a more neutral tone, and Atwood always uses these excerpts to play with readers expectations and perceptions. Which she does throughout the whole novel in a myriad of other ways as well!
This was a meaty, satisfying, loooong novel (lol she says after having read not one but four 500+ novels last month in under three days per book). The story and characters are compelling, the structure made it extremely intriguing on top of that, and I loved the book within a book aspect, especially as I have a soft spot for pulp science fiction. I also have a thing for main characters who experience longing and immense regret that they can do nothing to change. For someone who usually avoids suffering in books, I find this contradictory aspect of my reading personality puzzling. Atwood’s treatment of Iris reminded me in many ways of what Kazuo Ishiguro did with his protagonist in The Remains of the Day, also inexplicably one of my favorite books of all time, considering what I’ve been reading the last ten years.
Despite this being an imperfect reading experience, I’m really glad I finally read this one, and I’ll be keeping it for my shelves to revisit some day.