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The Blind Assassin

by Margaret Atwood

I read The Blind Assassin with a page of paper by me on which to catch notes and questions and all those Atwood sentences so good I wanted to feel them in my own pen. This one, for instance, about a returning soldier: “He’s in his uniform; his medals are like holes shot in the cloth through which the dull gleam of his real, metal body can be seen.” The vivid stuff of this novel got me drawing, too: buttons, hinges, beds with brocade curtains, grave stones, ocean liners, a Waldorf salad. By the time I’d finished the book it looked like I’d mapped the human genome.

Margaret Atwood’s 10th novel is what ancient Icelanders would have recognized as a saga, although probably shorter on heroics than they were used to in the 11th century. No room in the modernist novel, I guess, or maybe they got squeezed out to make more room for ruin and woe.

“In Paradise,” Atwood’s aged narrator, Iris Chase, observes, “there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.” The Blind Assassin loads up on losses at the outset. The first part of the book is a scrapbook of obituaries: Iris’s sister, her husband, her sister-in-law, her daughter. Only when the coffins are laid out does Iris start her story.

Why, in her 80s, does she feel the need to get it all out on paper? Maybe history’s been aching in her bones too long, or maybe the secrets she’s harbouring sense, like seafaring rats, that the time has come to abandon ship. Maybe it’s just what happens to people near the end: the old wounds open and an invisible blood of story pours forth.

The death among deaths is that of Iris’s younger sister, Laura. In 1945, 10 days after the world stops warring, she drives a car off a Toronto bridge. An accident? Suicide? At 25, Laura had a troubled soul, a restive heart, a mouth full of questions. Also, it seems, a novel called The Blind Assassin, which Iris arranges to have published posthumously. It becomes something of a Canadian classic; we get it, bit by bit, woven in with Iris’s narrative.

Iris and Laura are daughters of Port Ticonderoga, Ontario, a Lake Erie town as grey and solid as the local limestone used long ago to build the houses. Buttons built the Chase family fortune: in the early 1870s, Grandfather Benjamin opened the first of his factories, and before long he’d diversified into socks and undershirts and built a modest empire to hand down to his son – Iris and Laura’s father – Norval.

Iris is born in 1916 while her father is in France, trying not to die at the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Bourlon Wood. He makes it back alive, but it’s as if he’s carried back some war-born virus: calamity now seems to run like a contagion through the Chase family. Norval’s wife dies and he withdraws increasingly into the bottle. The family business starts to falter: the Depression takes its toll, then worker unrest. At times it seems like the only force holding the Chases together is Reenie, their fiercely faithful, barb-tongued housekeeper.

Chase Industries’ great rival, the Toronto industrialist Charles Griffen, throws a lifeline; Norval, in return, throws back Iris. Married at 18, she’s unceremoniously slotted into Griffen’s Toronto life. It’s a cold, stifling space in which Iris is quickly rendered inert. She smiles, does her wifely duty, fades into the furniture. Richard’s cruelties aren’t physical – well, mostly they’re not – but he doesn’t need to touch to crush her.

Laura’s novel – The Blind Assassin within The Blind Assassin – contains yet another novel. A nameless couple makes their illicit love in a series of pre-sullied rooms belonging to other people. After each entanglement they lie back, and the man, a pulp writer, spins a tale of the Planet Zycron where the far-famed city of Sakiel-Norn is marked for destruction for its opulence, its worship of false gods, its child sacrifices.

I won’t tell you how, exactly, but it’s with Laura’s fiction that Iris takes her revenge. It comes too late for Laura – and, for that matter, it’s hard to tell what good it does Iris. Does this guilty account of all she has witnessed set her free? That remains in doubt.

Days now have gone by since I finished The Blind Assassin, and still I’m trying to take its measure. That, no doubt, will sound like fear or avoidance, but there are strains both ways. On one side, there’s no denying the powerful gravity that both Iris’s story and the Zycronian chronicles exert, the way they hold you to the page. On that same side there are Atwood’s pitch-perfect sentences, and her command of a lost Toronto in which Sunnyside and Diana Sweets, the Royal York and the Arcadian Court loomed large.

On the other side, while The Blind Assassin doesn’t want for wit, it’s missing the mordant humour that sharpened novels like Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride, and the stories in Wilderness Tips. There are glints now and again, but they almost seem awkward on the page, shy, expecting reproof.

Maybe you’d argue that the lack of humour only enriches the novel’s tapestry of rue and regret. But how to explain the bloodlessness of Atwood’s characters? Laura has the most life, but we only get her by way of Iris – and then she dies. Iris herself exculpates Richard Griffen: the fact that she’s failed to convey him as anything more than “a cardboard cutout,” she holds, is his fault. “He had become like a statue of himself: huge, public, imposing, hollow.”

I’m not sure I buy that easy out. In any case, it doesn’t account for the void in Iris. If the idea is that memory and unshed tears finally well up in her and force her to act, we take it on faith rather than on what’s to be found in the novel. When it comes to her act of revenge – the one I can’t, in good conscience, divulge – it feels unnatural, imposed, and therefore implausible. Buried for most of her life, Iris, finally, declares that she wishes only to rise up and be seen. By the end of The Blind Assassin, I didn’t feel I could make any guarantees. The problem was, I just kept seeing through her.