Man, my mom picks way better books than I do. From the word go, I knew I would love this book. It has my two favorite things: historical fiction and following the life of a character from childhood through adulthood.
A Story Within a Story: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.
Canada in the early 1900s – Grandfather Chase builds a button factory where solid, plain and reliable buttons are made for work clothes. His empire expands to add factories for undergarments and he accumulates a sizable inheritance for his three sons. Unfortunately, WWI hits and two are killed at war leaving the button and undergarment factories to his last remaining heir. He has two daughters and thus enters the protagonist of the novel: Iris, the eldest of the two.
The book is written through the first person narrative of Iris and as such we meet each character through her own biases and relations. From the start we understand that Iris hungers for money, prominence in society and worldly exposure and that drives many of her decisions through her life: both the good and the bad. Iris is elderly and writing her legacy, telling secrets and revealing truths buried deep, while also reflecting on her own motives through the microscope that hindsight affords.
The second story, which fulfills this prompt in the challenge, is a third person narrative of a tryst between two young people. It is obvious from the start that they are hiding the relationship, but their motives and identities are hidden from the reader. It is does expertly too – I was kept guessing who this couple was (well, one person was obvious, but the other not so much) until the very end and could have been convinced it was either of two people readily enough.
As the book progresses, we follow Iris through her childhood and into young adulthood where her true nature comes to light. Eventually the book comes to a close when her narrative catches up to the modern day elderly version of herself and all secrets have been revealed.
This section may have some spoilers, although I will not ruin the ending as it is the payoff for getting through the entire thing.
The book has its fair share of criticisms and acclaims. The biggest criticism I read was the length of the book. At just shy of 530 pages in my print form, it is a lengthy tome, however I did not find that any part lagged or slowed the pace of the narrative down. Of course, when your favorite book is War and Peace, nothing really feels slow or arduous when it comes to this type of story. I relish in historical fiction and tales of a life gone, while not awry, at least not the way the person had intended.
Any book written in the first person will have skewed versions of characters as you only see them through the eyes of the narrator. It does lead to some hidden motives and unanswered questions, but I thought nearly every character was as well rounded as possible except for perhaps Richard although Iris admits her own faults in not being able to give him a better view. In her life, she could never figure him out and this is reflected in her prose about him.
I was left with a burning question as to what exactly the book that Laura published was actually about. This novel is introduced early into the book and runs throughout as a character all of its own, but the actual text within is never revealed. There are a lot of theories and I have my own, but it is not clear within the novel itself.
I would highly recommend giving this book a read. it is lengthy and it does jump around between Iris’ present day, her past and the story of the young couple and takes a little time to get used to the format. It is worth it though and I give it a full 5 stars.