Never in my life have I been so enchanted. Enthralled. Besotted. Fully and utterly in love with a book.
I feel like I know Iris Chase Griffin, the storyteller, the old grandma retelling her life story to her young and estranged granddaughter. From the marriage of her grandparents at the turn of the century, to the bone button factory which had made them rich, to the place she grew up with her younger sister Laura, to the death of her mother, new love of his father, the two world wars, the ruin and the despair, the tragic death of her sister, the loveless marriage and the secret.
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
The story is broken by the odd school report, a telegram, a news report and it spans over a century detailing the life of Iris Chase from infancy to her frail golden years, living alone surrounded by secrets and memories.
She retells her life story, knowing that the end is near and dying people like to write their story down as there will be no-one to tell them they did wrong after they’re gone. There is a truth in the dying words that cannot be hidden. She is saddened by life, feels heartless and love-less as there is only one man she had loved and he’s gone.
“Home is where the heart is, I thought now, gathering myself together in Betty’s Luncheonette. I had no heart any more, it had been broken; or not broken, it simply wasn’t there any more. It had been scooped neatly out of me like the yolk from a hard-boiled egg, leaving the rest of me bloodless and congealed and hollow.
I’m heartless, I thought. Therefore I’m homeless.”
This is a story that has many story lines. Some of them go to dead ends, other regroup further down the line, others contain several ramifications and easter eggs, like a Matroska doll, a story within a story within a story. “The Blind Assassin” is the story that a woman and her lover share in the stolen hours of mischief and adultery – she rich and well dressed, he poor and living from one day to another. These two lovers are the main characters in Laura Chase’s first and final book, a book appreciated fully only after her untimely death when the moralists took hold of it.
“All stories are about wolves… Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
Iris, her older sister, is one of the last remaining persons alive to tell the whole story, as it happened, and as it turns out, she’s a wolf too. An evil one as well. Or just human maybe?
I didn’t understand the significance of Laura’s The Blind Assassin for a while – awful sci-fi junk and all, and yet it turned out to be the most symbolic, the most intimate piece of (bad) fiction I have ever read as the lives of the made-up assassin and his innocent young lovers got to bring out parallels in the lives of the two clandestine lovers. I thought for the longest of times that the woman in the book must have been Laura and her young crush Alex, but I was mistaken. It was a massive revelation but I shall not spoil it for you.
I loved Iris, I wished she was my grandmother telling me about life pre-war, about how it was to see your family home fall to pieces, how the lack of money in the depression forced her father to form an alliance with new money who wanted the Chase status in society. I wanted her to win against her new sister in law, Winifred, who was a snobbish brat dead-set in squandering money on different balls and events that would get her into the higher society circles.
I wanted her to have a husband that loved her, but Robert was nothing like a loving husband. Cruel and sadistic, he would leave Iris with bruises that would yellow slowly and would be totally and completely ruled by his sister.
I wanted her to have a secret life, like her grandmother could have had – the only thing that would keep her going.
I wanted her to have so much because she gave me more in return.
“Was this a betrayal, or was it an act of courage? Perhaps both. Neither one involves forethought: such things take place in an instant, in an eyeblink. This can only be because they have been rehearsed by us already, over and over, in silence and darkness; in such silence, such darkness, that we are ignorant of them ourselves. Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance.”
I got shivers, I laughed, I fell in love with the two young girls (Laura and Iris). I loved Rainie – their nanny and mother and live-in help – and her constant advice on how a young woman should be.
I cried when Laura died. I gasped when Iris found her notebooks and I felt my heart break when I saw what Iris saw.. a tale of betrayal and stolen innocence.
Complexity in the face of true communion with another human is a lot of what this book is about. Atwood spells it out well, acrid though it may be. In a way, she tells you to keep trying, to cradle the good parts even if they are intangible and unspoken. And she’s right.