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 are reconciled. 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 inventing a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension given that novel opens with Laura’s suicide being reported to her sister. This tension is important, too, because the storytelling (the switching among narratives) reflect Iris’s reluctance to reveal her truth, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that no one will ever know what transpired.
Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens
In the tale Iris spins of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge. Chief among them are blindness, silence, and sacrifice, which also appear as physical traits in two characters from the sci-fi portions of Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruelly indulgent society where the wealthy blind slave children to produce luxurious carpets and cut out tongues of sacrificial maidens so that they cannot be disturbed by pleas to be spared. 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 said horde 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. However, blindness tends to be a failure to understand, just as sacrifice can stem from more noble impulses. Norval Chase (Iris’s father) generously decides to keep his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) employed, but he fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t exactly despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto the fact that it can be without merit. Implicit in her reflections on her father’s financial mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the idea that better choices on his part may have made a difference for herself and Laura.
Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, and their motivation is usually love. Liliana Chase endures 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 later dies following a miscarriage. The girls unfortunately pattern themselves after her example. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, particularly finds love to be 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. (And she certainly feels the older sibling’s resentment of being the only one required to be a good sister.) It’s this burden and lingering resentment that she shoulders into old age.
Concealment and Secrets
As the story spirals toward Iris’s long-held secrets, the role of concealment emerges. Concealment, of course, neatly dovetails with the effects of blindness and silence. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid the cruelty of their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. It’s this episode where what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter. Mr. Erskine is careful to conceal his own misconduct, so Iris only has Laura’s unexpected and, to Iris’s mind, too calm account of wandering hands to go by. Iris’s confusion borne from ignorance, however we might dislike it, makes sense given the historical context (children were not told about abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” plagues the abused and prevents justice. While concealment for Iris serves as a good survival strategy for dealing with the manipulative Geffen siblings, Laura’s choice to remain silent instead puts her at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one instead of confiding in Iris is both tragic and understandable.
In large part, concealment is what 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 opened up 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 somewhat immaterial. Atwood’s narrator whose is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may just have finally earned a bit of redemption for giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.