My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Part of the pleasure in reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, lies in tracing the various narrative threads throughout the book to see how they inform each other and how they reconcile. Newspaper clippings and excerpts from a novel written by Laura Chase (sister to Iris Chase Geffen, the narrator) are stitched together with Iris’s own story (both past and present). The juxtaposition here—the fictional (or at least fictionalized) romance of two clandestine lovers themselves weaving a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension to a novel that dramatically opens with Iris learning that Laura committed suicide. This added tension is important, too, because the storytelling (darting among accounts) reflects Iris’s reluctance to reveal all that transpired, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that the truth will be silenced.
Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens
As Iris spins the tale of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge: blindness, silence, and sacrifice. Atwood employs the first two of these strands as physical traits of characters from Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruel society where the wealthy force slave children to weave carpets until the children become blind, resigning most to a life of prostitution. The rich, unwilling to hear pleas for mercy, also sever the tongues of sacrificial maidens. Meant to appease the gods and thus keep the city safe, these sacrifices prove fruitless: an invading horde waits outside the gates and the assassin is likely to tell them how to breach the walls.
Class tensions, futile sacrifices, and overwhelming outside forces (World War I, the Great Depression) also shape life at Avilion, as do blindness and silence. Here, Atwood shifts from literal blindness to a failure to recognize or understand, just as sacrifice stems from more noble if misguided impulses. Iris’s father, Norval, generously retains his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) but fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his own family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto how it may be without merit. Implicit in her reflections about her father’s business mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the silent accusation that his prudence may have spared his daughters from a grim future. In this manner, the ever-wily Iris protests discreetly that blame does not lie solely with her. But she has a point: as female child then and a woman later, she always had less agency.
Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, motivated by love to endure. Liliana Chase suffers her husband’s post-war adultery and drinking binges in silence whilst attempting to bear him male heirs (Norval’s partial blindness, is a bit heavy handed here). She dies following a miscarriage. The girls pattern themselves after their mother’s sacrifice. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, finds such love burdensome. She is weighed down by her father’s love as well as the responsibility for the younger and too trusting Laura, a responsibility thrust upon her by parents and housekeeper Reenie. She shoulders the resentment of this duty into old age.
Concealment and Secrets
As Iris’s tightly held secrets begin to unravel, the effects of concealment—both blindness and silence—become apparent. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid mistreatment by their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. And what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter as a consequence of Erskine’s careful predation. Having not witnessed his actions, Iris is confounded by Laura’s unexpected and (to Iris’s mind) too calm account of wandering hands. She can’t imagine why a man would touch a child. However we might dislike it, her view is explicable given the historical context (children knew little of such abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” also plagues the abused and prevents justice. For Iris, concealment serves as a useful survival strategy in her dealings with the manipulative Geffen siblings, whereas silence places Laura at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one, concealing her suffering rather than trusting Iris to accept her story, is both tragic and understandable.
It’s concealment that ties Atwood’s novel together. The switches among the narratives styles permit us to question the notion of what represents the truth just as it lets Iris keep her secrets a little longer—even as she drops hints in hopes that she won’t have to outright admit her culpability. As she nears her confession, she finally has to embrace the terribleness of should: how she should have assured Laura that she believed her, when she should have said nothing, been kinder, or even lied. How she should have confessed to her daughter, Aimee, or rescued her granddaughter Sabrina. At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved. Whether readers guess at the big revelations in The Blind Assassin beforehand is immaterial. Atwood’s narrator is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may earned some redemption by giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.