Margaret Atwood's tenth novel was published in 1999 and won the Booker Prize for 2000. It is a stunning tour de force which showcases Atwood's prodigious talents as a story-teller and brings together the themes and styles she has been working on during her life as an accomplished poet and novelist.
The novel begins in typical Atwood stark fashion: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." Suicide, say the papers in articles reprinted in the novel; accident, says Iris, the narrator. But from this simple beginning the novel unfolds as a series of intertwined yet profoundly different narratives. There is the daily life of present-day Iris, 82, not as spry as she once was, clinging on to her independent life as her eyesight, her knees, her hearing fail her. There is the memoir she is writing for her estranged granddaughter, about her childhood in a small Ontario town, and her complicated relationship with her dreamy artistic sister; this story is bolstered by newspaper articles reporting on the events that Iris recalls. Then there's The Blind Assassin, a novel about a socialist on the lam and his rich young married lover who he meets in a series of dingy borrowed rooms around Toronto. And finally there's the science fiction story he tells to his lover during their trysts, about a planet where young carpet-weavers go blind and are then hired as expert killers by the wealthy. Like the young carpet-weavers in this fictional world, Atwood creates a dazzling tapestry of interconnected stories whose final relationship is unclear until the end of the story. It's wonderful: a mystery, a romance, a history, a fantasy, a biography, all rolled into one.
Atwood deserved this Booker, which she got after having been nominated three times. This book strikes me as a mature expression of so many of Atwood's themes: the plight of women, which she has been centrally concerned with since her very first novel, Surfacing; the complex relationships that exist between women, which reached its darkest hour in Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride; the history of Ontario, which came to the fore, albeit from a more factual base, in Alias Grace; and a newer thread, a history of labour, socialism, and unionization in the province. Atwood changes voice in this novel with effortless grace, from clueless young Iris to crabby old Iris to breathless society gossip columnist to two-penny science fiction writer to hardnosed newspaper reporter. And the story grabs the reader and sweeps her along on a mysterious journey, the path of which only becomes clear in retrospect. This is a very satisfying read, and I highly recommend it.