When I took my copy of The Blind Assassin off the shelf I realised it had been almost ten years since I first read it. I was at university, coming off literature overload and desperate to read something for pleasure again. I had just read The Handmaid’s Tale as part of my course, the first Margaret Atwood I’d read, and enjoyed it, and I saw this at the last minute as I stood with a bundle of books in my arms, waiting to pay. Out of all those, this was my favourite. I was quickly absorbed in it, and I have read it again since, but not for quite a few years. (My paperback, it pains me to see, is becoming quite battered. It’s such a weighty book.) I am happy to say I enjoyed it just as much this time around, and parts of it I think I understood better, and took more from it.
‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’
Iris Chase narrates her story from her home in Port Ticonderoga, Canada. She is in her eighties, filling her time with walks and avoiding the meddling of her younger friend Myra. Iris has a bad heart, and she’s setting down her life as she remembers it, she’s setting the record straight. Much of the story concerns her younger sister, Laura, remembered after her death as the author of ‘The Blind Assassin’, a book that was quite scandalous at the time it was published. Iris and Laura came from a well off family, their father owned the button factory which had been handed down from his own father. In the past their family had been extravagant, filling the house with parties and many-course dinners, but after the war the demand for cheap buttons declined, and the Chase family have to tighten their belts. Through Iris and what she gathered from their maid Reenie (Myra’s mother), we learn about her grandparents, and what life was like when they had money; their grandmother Adelia’s parties and their home Avilion; the history of the town and how it copes after the war; their mother and father’s story, the war and how it changed him; and on to Iris’ own story, and Laura’s.
The novel within the novel, ‘The Blind Assassin’, is about an unnamed man and woman, meeting in secret, always in new, dingy locations where she will not be seen or recognised. He is on the run and she, we can infer from her dress and manners, is from a well-t0-do family. When together he tells her the story of the blind assassin, of the far off world of Zycron, and the city of Sakiel-Norn, places existing in another dimension of space. The city is full of privileged men ignoring gods they once worshiped, of corruption and slavery. The blind assassin makes his way through the city on his latest mission, while a tongue-less maiden awaits the arrival of the Lord of the Underworld, and her imminent death.
There are also newspaper clippings used throughout to ground the story in reality. Some of them come some time before the actions Iris is telling us about, and when you finally get what it was referring to there’s a sort of lightbulb moment. Things are not always as they seem.
Iris as an older lady is spunky and strong willed, refusing to compromise. She writes letters to those wishing for a piece of Laura, telling them where to go. Yet she also gives in to Myra when being fussed over, and knows she cannot do all the things she used to. She’s not as young as she once was. But as a young woman she comes across as quite weak. She’s trapped into situations beyond her control, true, but also drifts through her life for far too long, accepting everything she is told, not asking questions or taking action until it’s too late. She encounters a lot of loss, and betrayal, and regret, and I had a lot of sympathy for her. For much of it she’s a prisoner of circumstance, her hands are tied. Things were different back then too. I still want a happy ending for her. I want her to have something restored, for others to get their comeuppance at her hand. At least with the ending we’re given I can imagine it for myself. I can construct a good outcome for her.
I would like to say more, and easily could go on and on, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, if you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat. Savour it.