A rich, lustrous evocation of a world. Why Iris is telling us her story is not immediately obvious, but she certainly has plenty to tell. And she has her share of secrets, as we come to realise.
Iris is a peculiar narrator. She seems to be telling us her own story -- her marriage to Richard, her entry into womanhood and motherhood, the high society circles she moves in due to the influence of her wealthy husband and sister-in-law -- but actually all this is just the backdrop for the 'real' focus, which is always her sister, Laura.
Laura glows with a golden light like the aura that she paints onto a photo of herself once, as a prank. She seems to be the wonderfully alive, eerily insightful and unconventional heroine of Iris's narrative, despite the fact that she dies in the first line of the book.
Laura haunts Iris as she haunts the town they grew up in, as her words appear quoted on bathroom stalls and literary prizes are given in her name, fifty years after her death. Iris is haunted also by the promise she made her father:
'If anything happens,' he said finally, 'you must promise to look after Laura.' (124)
There is a shuttling back-and-forth of the narrative as several strands weave together: Iris's current, elderly comings and goings; her vivid reminiscences that take her back to her girlhood and then forward in time; newspaper clippings marking important occurences in the Chase family history (deaths especially); and the haunting passages from The Blind Assassin, a novel by Iris's sister Laura (published posthumously).
One of the magical things about this story is that it seems absolutely present and vivid in each of its moments. Thus when we reach the 'present day' it truly does feel as if a lifetime has passed. Near the end of the book I felt I was reaching back into an ancient past to recall the lives of Iris and Laura as girls.
The Blind Assassin (the book within the book) features an anonymous young man who is telling a science-fiction story aloud to an anonymous young woman as they meet secretly, over years. I loved the oral storytelling quality of these chapters and I always wanted more when they ended. Atwood charges those moments with passion, longing and indulgence; the world of Zycron becomes a romantic interlude, true escapism. I wanted to go there.
I suppose this is a story about how imagination can free us from the confines of our lives. Iris spends her life in confinement, imprisoned by class expectations, by a forced sense of propriety in a society she never wanted to be part of, and not least, by a tyrannical husband and his sister-minion.
I can't do justice to the degrading horror that was Iris's marriage. But what strikes even more powerfully is that Atwood reminds us that these horrors were not uniquely Iris's; they were commonplace, even expected. This was how women's lives were then.
About my bridal night... I didn't know what to expect; my only informant had been Reenie, who had led me to believe that whatever would happen would be unpleasant and most likely painful, and in this I was not deceived. She'd also implied that this disagreeable event or sensation would be nothing out of the ordinary - all women went through it, or all who got married - so I shouldn't make a fuss. Grin and bear it had been her words. (294)
We do find out eventually that Iris's and Richard's relationship is not ordinary in the slightest, though the power dynamics that make her completely dependent on him are the conventional, unremarkable ones. The power structures that enslave women and treat them as property.
I was sand, I was snow - written on, rewritten, smoothed over. (455)
This story reveals, more than anything else, the utter devastation wrought by a woman's enforced passivity and helplessness in a male-dominated world.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You can find my original review on my blog here.