Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

Spanning the economical, political and social turmoil of the entire 20th century, The Blind Assassin is a sprawling epic about the life and times of Mrs Richard Griffiths, formerly Iris Chase. Wife of a rising politician and admired philanthropist, daughter of a well respected businessman, granddaughter of a pioneering entrepreneur, mother of a wreck and sister of a tragic cult novelist, Iris is constantly defined throughout her own story by her relationship to others. It's not that she lacks the intelligence or the judgement to be her own person, it's just that she doesn't know who she is supposed to be. Living through a time of great social change, Iris comes across as lost and abandoned and drifts through her childhood, adolescence and adult life avoiding making decisions or raising her voice, presenting a persona of simple acquiescence and all but sleepwalking through her life.

Born into money but neglected by her eventually alcoholic single-parent father, Iris and her younger sister Laura have the run of their impressive house- checked periodically by household battleaxe Reenie the housekeeper come cook. Iris is one of the few people to fully understand her younger sister- her frank way of speaking, her literal interpretation of language and events, her oddness.  A bit of a metaphysical evangelist, Laura's trusting nature and warped logic cause her many problems throughout the course of her life and certainly play a part in her tragic death.

The novel starts with Laura's death, then expands into the past and the present. Narrated by 80-odd year old Iris some 50 years after Laura's accident/suicide, the plot jumps backwards and forwards through time. Iris slowly reveals more about her childhood, her loveless but financially strategic marriage, her complicated relationship with Laura and her own weakening grasp of life. Much harder and more stubborn in her old age, Iris is almost unrecognisable from the conflicted and mixed up young woman she one was. It seems that it's just her memories that attest to her real identity, and obviously her secrets.

Within the novel are assorted newspaper clippings and reports, and chapters lifted from The Blind Assassin, the only novel by Laura Chase. A scandalous volume on its posthumous publication, the novel sees a socially elevated Woman character engaging in clandestine meetings with a politically charged Man and conducting a passionate, secret and altogether confusing affair. The Woman is assumed by all to represent Laura Chase, and the Man Alex Thomas, a communist fugitive and supposed Bolshevik that the sisters sheltered in the loft after the war and before he disappeared to Spain to join the uprising. Within this (fictional) novel, the Man is also composing an episodic narrative of his own, also entitled The Blind Assassin; a pulpy science fiction affair, featuring the titular blind assassin, sacrificial mute slave girls, ray-gun toting lizard men and besieged Eastern empires. The Woman waits eagerly for each meeting in order to hear more of the story, composed just for her by her borderline abusive fugitive. It sounds crazy and unmanageable, to have three stories going on at once, all with the same name, but it works (how could it not work with Margaret Atwood at the helm?) and more details are revealed about the lives of the Chase sisters through the fictional novel. It has since been recategorised as an unduly forgotten classic, much to elderly Iris' annoyance.

As Iris reflects back on the course of her life, she gradually infuses her memories with truths she knows now that she was unaware of at the time. Her whole history is shredded by hindsight and missed opportunities, which makes her an incredibly powerful and tragic narrator. A pioneer of her generation, Iris struggled to find her way on an unmarked trail. The bitter and shambolic old lady in her tumbledown house is left as the sole survivor of a legacy of shame and secrets, lies and perversions. She's not above hiding a few secrets of her own too, though, the discovery of which throws the whole novel on its head.

I absolutely loved this book. I loved how complex its structure was and how rich the world of the narrative was. The shabby doughnut shop, the knock off holiday decorations from Myra's tat emporium. I loved the details that made present day Iris so real. The way the three Blind Assassins built upon each other's stories and filled in literal and metaphorical blanks was amazing. Iris is such an insanely complicated character- strong in her own way (you would need to be, just to survive a marriage like that) but also guilty of a lot of oversights. I'm not convinced that she always thought she was doing the right thing, even if she learned to convince herself that that was the case. But the reader can't help but sympathise with Iris for all that she lost and all that she's had to live with. There is not one scene in the whole entire book where actual, physical, real life Iris is happy.


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