Wednesday, January 7, 2009

2000 - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Beware: lots of spoilers if you haven't read the book.

This story is superb. Atwood is one of the best writers of our time, and everything I've read of hers (The Handmaid's Tale, The Robber Bride, Oryx and Crake and The Penelopiad) has been terrific. The Blind Assassin is complex, and readers have to be content with ambiguity, but it's well worth it.

Iris is the narrator, but that's not clear at first. She's an old woman, remembering, setting the record straight (she says) for her grand-daughter, Sabrina. She ponders her sister's suicide and a parallel story, a strange fantasy novel , which seems to the reader at first to be completely irrelevant. It is supposed to have been posthumously published by an unidentified pair of authors, then the author of this story-within-a-story is revealed as Iris's dead sister Laura - but it's not, and eventually it becomes clear that Iris wrote it herself, not Laura.

Two sisters, relics of an older time when women were merely decorative pawns, bought and sold to enhance the social position of the men in their lives. In class-conscious Britain, the Chase family would have been dismissed with a haughty sniff as 'Trade', but in Canada, in the backblocks beyond Toronto, theirs was a respectable old family with a asuccessful manufacturing business and the girls had to 'marry well'.

Why, I wondered, did Richard Griffin, a wealthy industrialist in his own right, want to marry Iris when her father's button factory failed? Was the Chase family name really so valuable that a dynamic man like him would want an insipid, ineffectual wife? All the efforts of Winifred, Richard's awful sister, to mould Iris as a suitable wife failed; like Laura, Iris became dreamy and feeble (and didn't eat) to avoid unpleasantness, and she's a failure as a society wife.

Both Laura and Iris are besotted by Alex Thomas. He was some kind of subversive during the Depression, presumably in the pay of the Russians; then he's involved in the Spanish Civil War and finally killed off in WW2. Laura learns of his death through a telegram because he had named her next of kin, a message from beyond the grave that shows which sister he preferred.

Iris is the narrator, so we're told that Alex loved her, but he was also Laura's lover. The strange stories interwoven with the main story purport to be Laura's account of events, but as we eventually know, they were really written by Iris. They tell of meetings in sleazy rooms, of Alex composing SF fantasies, and how he finally sends one of these stories off for publication. Through these co-authored stories we see Alex for what he is: brutal, ruthless and manipulative; the female contributions bring softenings, happy endings and kindness. When Iris finds a copy in a trashy store, she's surprised to find that her 'blind assassin' and the 'mute virgin' have been omitted from the story. Stripped of her fantasies, the story is what her behaviour has been: merely sordid.

As the pages turn, Iris finally realises what the reader has already concluded: Richard has a penchant for young girls and his taste extended to Laura. He forced Laura to abort her child, but the child Iris bears is Alex's. Iris names the baby Aimee, but she's not much loved by her mother, who's not a loving person at all....She's a real old misery. She paints herself as exploited and bullied, but she's scornful of Reenie and her daughter Myra - both of whom are good to her in her old age. She's very conscious of money and status - her own social standing is ambiguous, but she's delighted to see Winifred snubbed.

So, who is the blind assassin? The one who doesn't see, sent to murder the sacrificial virgin as a way of challenging the status quo? Not Alex, although by seducing both girls he's just the same as Richard, only seedier. I think that Iris is - she pretends to be the mute innocent who finally reveals all, using Laura's name to publish the book that ruins Richard's career. She does this under the pretext of needing to tell the truth to Sabrina, in a vain attempt to win back her grand-daughter's affection.

It's Iris who tells Laura that she had a secret affair with Alex, so that Laura drives off a bridge in despair. It's Iris who publishes the book and drives Richard to suicide. Her choices are vindictive, cruel and spiteful; she seems not to have a real freind or confidante anywhere. When her daughter and grand-daughter reject her just as Myra's mother Reenie finally does, she has no one to blame but herself.

It's beautifully written, capturing the tone of the period with details of clothes, buildings and politics, and Atwood has complete mastery of her characters. Iris is a sardonic snob, much given to judging others and utterly wrong about people because she's so superficial. And yet, we feel just a little pity for her in her loneliness, at the end.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 31.3.2002.

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

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