My rating: 2 of 5 stars
For me, Margaret Atwood is a very hit-or-miss writer. I loved Oryx and Crake, but I was less impressed with its sequel, The Year of the Flood. The Handmaid's Tale would probably make my top 25 favorite books, and I adored The Penelopiad, but neither Bodily Harm nor Dancing Girls thrilled me much. In spite of having won the Man Booker Prize, The Blind Assassin ended up on my "Atwood flub" list.
The various plot lines contained within the book are, independently, riveting. The characters are very well drawn and appropriate for the time period when the novel takes place. However, when rolled altogether, The Blind Assassin is not a compelling novel.
In some novels, it is okay to know what happens at the end of the story at the beginning of the novel. (I.e. a character dies, someone is murdered, a couple breaks up.) These novels are constructed to explain what caused the ultimate outcome, shown to the reader at the very beginning, and they maintain suspense because by leading the reader in a variety of possible directions. The Blind Assassin fails in this attempt, because you feel suspicious of the dead character, Laura, from the start. You see her instantly as someone who would be inclined to take her life and become less and less interested in why she chooses to do this because, by her very eccentric nature, it's inevitable.
The idea of multiple converging stories-within-stories is a good one, but in my opinion, was executed poorly in this novel. I had little trouble following the story "Blind Assassin" within Atwood's larger novel and keeping it separate in my mind, but I saw little relevance to having it embedded within the story Iris was telling, about her sister--even if Laura (the sister) wrote it. Personally, I would have preferred to read a completely independent book that contained only that story, because I enjoyed its lack of exposition more than the sections of the novel written in present time.
Just so you (the uninformed reader) are not confused, the novel was set up like this: the frame of the novel is present-day, when Iris (the narrator) is old, and Laura (her sister) is already dead. Iris sets out to tell the story of why/how Laura died, which takes place starting in the sisters' childhood and is the first meta-story within the novel. Then, interspersed throughout Iris' narration is a fictional (?) story Laura wrote about a pair of lovers, called "The Blind Assassin." This is the second meta-story. In Laura's story, the male lover tells the female lover an ongoing fictional story about a blind assassin, which creates a third meta-story: a story, within a story, within a story.
As I said: good idea, poor execution. I got bored with Iris present-day life and the overabundance of exposition that went into her telling of hers and Laura's childhoods. So much so, in fact, that I skipped the last five or ten pages of the novel in order to start a new one. I had known the result of the story from the first fifteen pages, and nothing new was going to be revealed to me in the last fifteen. I did not feel particularly concerned with what happened to Iris, so I just quit reading.
Atwood is admittedly a skilled novelist, able to juggle more than one storyline at a time. Hopefully her next novel will prove more captivating than this one.