READING: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

It may be the earliest of crimes. A parent says you are this kind of person and other people agree.  The story is off already before we are old enough to rein it in and when we are, it is too late. The tale of us is set in stone. Our siblings cop it too. All offspring are differentiated. One is shy; one is outgoing. One pragmatic; one a romantic. And so it goes down through the generations. Each child born, each one named and typed and sent out into the world.

It’s a reading of Margaret Atwood’s, The Blind Assassin, which has me thinking these things. This earliest kind of stereotyping may be unavoidable. It’s what these stories do to us in our struggle to present ourselves to the world as fully-fledged, which is interesting. This struggle may become the enduring story of our lives. It may fuel our decisions as we continually attempt to shed the skin of childhood or, if we comply, live up to our parent’s and sibling’s versions of ourselves. And only finally, when we are old and have earned the distance necessary, may we understand that most decisions we have made were not our own.

In Atwood’s, The Blind Assassin, the main character is strongly influenced by her parent’s story of her. The novel itself is complex. It is a story within a story within a story as Iris, now an old woman, attempts to tell the truth about her life, reveal her secrets and set the record straight for her estranged granddaughter.

When Iris’s doctor tells her that her heart is failing, Iris begins her scribing on the back porch:

“I sit at my wooden table, scratching away with my pen. No, not scratching – pens no longer scratch. The words roll smoothly and soundlessly enough across the page; it’s getting them to flow down the arm, it’s squeezing them out through the fingers, that is so difficult.”

She’s right. The story of us is hard to tell. What bits do we pick? Are we imposing sense on lives resistant to such things? When this novel came out in 2000, its reception was mixed. The powers that be were wondering whether Atwood had pulled it off. I think she has. I imagine if someone means to tell a difficult truth about themselves, as Iris does, the path to it would, by necessity, be convoluted. We might approach it and then retreat and approach it again. When so much of who a person is is not at all what others will them to be, a true accounting becomes an act of bravery.

So much of Iris’s story is set in the fictional town of Port Ticonderoga in present-day Canada. It tells of frailty which comes with ageing. Iris both waits for and resists death.

“The temptation is to stay inside; to subside into the kind of recluse whom neighbourhood children regard with derision and a little awe; to let the hedges and weeds grow up, to allow the door to rust shut, to lie on my bed in some gown-shaped garment and let my hair lengthen and spread out over the pillow and my fingernails to sprout claws, while candle wax drips onto the carpet. But long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism.”

It is true a choice has been made, but perhaps, not by Iris. We learn that Laura, Iris’s younger sister, is more of the romantic. She feels things deeply. It is Iris, who is the pragmatic one almost by default. From Iris’s dying mother there is this:

“‘Be a good girl,’ she said. ‘I hope you’ll be a good sister to Laura. I know you try to be.’ I nodded. I didn’t know what to say. I felt I was the victim of an injustice: why was it always me who was supposed to be a good sister to Laura, instead of the other way around? Surely my mother loved Laura more than she loved me.”

And as her mother lay dying, Iris’s resentment of Laura surfaces again when she says:

“I wanted to say that she was mistaken in me, in my intentions. I didn’t always try to be a good sister: quite the reverse. Sometimes I called Laura a pest and told her not to bother me, and only last week I’d found her licking an envelope – one of my own special envelopes, for thank-you notes – and had told her that the glue on them was made from boiled horses, which has caused her to retch and sniffle.”

The seeds have already been sown for later decisions. Iris will marry Richard Griffen, a prominent industrialist with political aspirations, to save the family from financial ruin. In her pragmatism, Iris attempts to march into this kind of self-sacrifice in a way, Laura, the romantic, could never. On the other hand, Laura will pine for Alex Thomas, a union agitator and author of sci-fi pulp fiction. The sisters hide him in the attic of their rambling childhood home of Avilion after their father’s factory is set alight and he is blamed.

Iris’s tale of her past is only one of the stories of the novel. Interspersed throughout is the story of two lovers who meet clandestinely to conduct their affair. This tale is presumably the novel written by Laura, Iris’s younger sister, but published posthumously by Iris, after Laura drives off a bridge and falls to her death. Then within that story, we find another, as told to Laura, we think initially, by Alex of The Blind Assassin. It is a sci-fi tale of children sent blind by the weaving of carpets in the city of Sakiel-Norn, who later become assassins.

It sounds complex, I know, but there is no other way but to dive right into this densely woven (pun intended) novel and let it work its magic. The more involved we become, the more we realise that Iris’s attempt at self-sacrifice in marrying the awful Richard Griffen, and entering the life of his equally awful sister, Winifred, set about a chain of events which doom them all. It may have been better if Captain Chase, Iris’s father, allowed the button factory to go belly-up and they all went out and found jobs. Still, I’m talking out of turn. The expectations of high-born women were very different back in the 30’s and 40’s.

“What virtue was once attached to this notion of going beyond your strength, of not sparing yourself, of ruining your health! Nobody is born with that kind of selflessness: it can be acquired only by the most relentless discipline, a crushing-out of natural inclination, and by the time the knack or secret of it must have been lost. Or perhaps I didn’t try, having suffered from the effects it had on my mother. As for Laura, she was not selfless, not at all. Instead she was skinless, which is a different thing.”

It is true, once decided upon, Iris’s tilt at self-sacrifice does not sit comfortably with her. She is not her mother, as much as she might try to be. If only she had known the price to paid to save the family finances. Her little sister, Laura, the romantic, did. In this instance at least, practicality is overrated.  It reminds the reader that doing the right thing can be stupid.

It may be true that Atwood shows her hand too early in this novel.  It doesn’t take us long to work out, its not Laura who is meeting secretly with Alex Thomas, but this made no difference to me. I did not read this as mystery novel, but as an attempt by the main character to bequeath a truth she couldn’t tell in life.

“But I leave myself in your hands. What choice do I have? By the time you read this last page, that – if anywhere – is the only place I will be.”

Mostly, this is a novel of regret, decisions made, which could not be unmade and I thank Atwood for it.

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