(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s challenging new novel, The Blind Assassin, opens with the death of Laura Chase, who deliberately drives off a hundred-foot bridge just after the end of World War II. This event is reported by her sister Iris Chase Griffen, presently in her eighties, who is writing a family history embellished with tart observations on life at the end of the century. Keenly aware of her age and frailty, Iris knows she has come down in the world; her front steps are rotting and money is scarce. She eats little, but she likes to visit the local doughnut shop, where Laura’s words are often quoted in the graffiti of her favorite public washroom.

Even dead, Laura is the most celebrated member of the once powerful Chase family, as the putative author of a short novel that is also titledThe Blind Assassin. At first denounced as shocking and obscene, her book traces an affair between a well-bred young woman and a nameless, rather crude science-fiction writer who entertains her with a story set on an imaginary planet. Published posthumously, Laura’s book has become a cult favorite, and its fragments appear at random within Iris’s chronicle. Consequently, Atwood’s long novel is composed of a story within a short novel within a family history. Strangely enough, in spite of this complex structure, The Blind Assassin is not difficult to follow.

The Chase family is well known in Port Ticonderoga. In the late nineteenth century Grandfather Benjamin Chase, a manufacturer, brought prosperity to the town by establishing a button factory, an economic blessing that produced cheap wooden and bone buttons in quantity. He also constructed two more factories to be administered by his sons. In 1934, the button factory was gutted by fire but has since been rebuilt as a boutique mall.

A second landmark, the Chase mansion, was decorated by Grandmother Adelia, a cultured woman who was enamored of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the legend of King Arthur. She named their home Avilion (Sir Thomas Malory’s name for Avalon) after the isle where Arthur went to die. Like Adelia’s portrait in the library, Avilion becomes a symbol of the family’s gracious Victorian past. It serves as a summer residence during Iris’s marriage and later as an old-age home. Iris is convinced it will soon be burned down by smokers.

Of Benjamin and Adelia’s sons, only Captain Norval Chase survives World War I, but he is severely changed. He returns to his wife and daughter Iris with a limp, a black leather eye patch, and two dead brothers. Scarred emotionally as well as physically, Captain Chase is a decent man whose sensibilities have been cauterized by war. He frequently locks himself in Avilion’s turret to drink, throw things, and vent his rage.

Laura is born with difficulty three and a half years after her sister. She is an uneasy baby and a strange, literal child. (Told by Reenie, the cook, to bite her tongue, she does.) After her birth, her mother remains in fragile health and presently suffers a fatal miscarriage. Reenie becomes Laura and Iris’s housekeeper and surrogate mother. Her practical, earthy voice still haunts Iris.

In 1928, Captain Chase commissions a bronze statue to memorialize his dead comrades of World War I—a disenchanted weary soldier who remains “forever young, forever exhausted, . . . pigeon droppings running down his face like tears.” It is sculpted by a red-haired bohemian from Toronto named Callista Fitzsimmons, who eventually becomes Chase’s mistress.

After the Great Depression begins, Captain Chase keeps his factories open rather than fire his workers, although he is losing money. When he donates factory seconds to the poor, his wealthy competitor Richard Griffen condemns his generosity as false and charges him with dumping overruns. As the Chase family’s life grows Spartan, Reenie carefully turns the sheets to economize.

On Labor Day, 1934, the annual button factory picnic is held in spite of possible layoffs. There Laura meets a swarthy young man, Alex Thomas, a friend of Callista. A former divinity student, Alex has lost his faith and leans toward communism. Concern for his soul leads the ever-serious Laura to invite him to dinner, not realizing that her father has already invited Richard and his glittering sister, Winifred Griffen Prior. The result is a disastrous meal and a confrontation between Alex and “sleek,” ultraconservative Richard.

Eventually the button factory is forced to close in spite of Chase’s efforts to keep it solvent, but union organizers call his action a lockout and respond with a general strike. Callista, supporting the factory workers, leaves him. As the strike escalates, riots break out in Port Ticonderoga....

(The entire section is 1936 words.)