Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Club: "The Blind Assassin"

This month's selection was Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Not quite the simple 1930s murder mystery that the cover indicated for one of our members. This is a story within a story within a story. Two of our members had not completed the book and as we described the events of the story it sounded much like soap opera intrigue, yet the structure of the story and quality of writing was anything but simple afternoon escape.

Iris Chase Griffen recalls her life and that of her immediate family in a memoir for her estranged granddaughter, Sabrina. The story alternates between Iris' observations of her daily life in old age, the chronological tale of the Chase family, and excerpts from her sister Laura's novel (The Blind Assassin) published posthumously. The Blind Assassin is the scandalous story about illicit lovers and the science fiction tale they contrive during their stolen moments together.

We all loved the book and praised Atwood for the interesting structure of the novel, her descriptive language, and the suspense sustained throughout. We enjoyed Iris' insights on decades past in addition to the challenges of old age.

WARNING, the following contains spoilers for anyone who hasn't yet read the book.

One of the first questions raised was the purpose of the science fiction story imagined by the lovers in the fictional novel. One readers' guide suggested it paralleled the story of the Chase family. We agreed that we could see the Chase sisters as the sacrificial virgins, Alex (the fugitive unionizer) as the assassin who rescues the virgin, and Richard Griffen as the powerful wazir granted his way with the virgin before her sacrifice. The virgin's tongue has been cut out. She has no voice -- much like the Chase sisters have no voice in their lives. The assassin was once a child weaver of fine tapestry gone blind due to the intricacy of his work. Alex (a representative for workers' rights) was blind to the discord he created between the sisters who both loved him.

The Blind Assassin was considered quite racy at the time of its publication following Laura Chase's death in 1945. Laura drove her sister's car through traffic barriers and off a bridge under construction. Suicide? Or a tragic accident on an icy Toronto road? The mysterious Laura (described as "different" by many) became a cult figure and her followers speculated about the real identity of the lovers that inspired her novel. They hounded Iris as the only living link to Laura. Only at the end of Atwood's book do we learn that Iris wrote the novel attributed to Laura.

Why did Iris write the fictional story of her affair with Alex? Revenge against Richard Griffen, said one of our members. The man who "bought" young Iris as his youthful bride (in exchange for investment in the struggling Chase Button Factory) and molester of young Laura. Although the lovers in The Blind Assassin were fictional, it would be clear to Richard who they represented and that Alex fathered Iris' child. We also interpreted publication of the novel as Iris' emancipation from her dysfunctional marriage.

Why did Iris publish her novel under Laura's name? Perhaps to preserve Laura's memory for more than her suicide. Or as contrition for the affair with Alex, whom Laura also loved and protected by allowing Richard to molest her.

How did the fictional novel end? We'll never know. The affair between Iris and Alex ended when he left for World War II and died in battle. How Iris concluded the novel within a novel is up to the interpretation of the reader.

Atwood's novel also raises the issue of women's role in society (addressed in The Handmaid's Tale as well). Iris and Laura are a disappointment to their father who wanted sons to join in the family business. Following the death of their mother he abandons them to the household help and a series of ineffectual tutors. Not until Iris reaches puberty does their father take notice of his children, and then it is only to prepare Iris for society and a suitable marriage. Richard and his widowed sister Winifred treat Iris like the child she is (a sheltered 18 to Richard's 35) and manipulate her to appear like the proper wife for a successful man with political aspirations. Neither Iris nor Laura is prepared to make their own way in a world that offered women few suitable opportunities. As Iris describes her life she is little more than an object passed from one person to another (father to husband, housekeeper to housekeeper, attorney to attorney). Laura is "in the way" when their father dies and she comes to live with Richard and Iris. Later she becomes a liability when pregnant with Richard's child. Following the publication of The Blind Assassin, Iris has value only as the "gatekeeper" to Laura for cult followers of the novel. Iris and Laura have little to no power over their lives. Winifred exercises power through Richard, having none herself.

We barely touched on the book's Fantasy theme during our discussion. Like Rapunzel, Iris and Laura live like pampered yet captive princesses in a tower. Laura waits for "the happy ending" following the death of their mother -- as if real life was a fairy tale. Alex arrives like a knight in shining armor into the dull lives of the naive sisters. The fictional Alex relates a fantastical story in The Blind Assassin to entertain the fictional Iris. Iris' daughter Aimee devises a fantasy story about her parentage (Laura and the man from the novel) and thus denounces Iris. Winifred wins custody of Aimee's daughter Sabrina and tells her tales about Iris. Cult followers of the novel and its author fantasize about Laura and the real identities of her fictional characters. Fantasy within fantasy within fantasy.

In summary, our group admired Atwood's ability to maintain reader interest in a complex story we loved her descriptive writing.

Our next selection is Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions. Tentatively to be followed by Amor Towles' Rules of Civility.

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