“In Paradise 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, by Margaret Atwood, is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s a delight to be able to say it so soon, comparatively speaking, after Against The Day and Wolf Hall, each of which I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last couple of years. For what it’s worth, Atonement, The Wake and Lord of the Rings sit alongside them in this personal pantheon of books that have left me deeply moved and awestruck.
Iris Chase-Griffen is an eighty three year old woman writing her life story down for ‘the only one…who needs it now’, prompted by her reflections on the suicide of her younger sister, Laura, decades earlier. It takes in most of the twentieth century, and takes place in Toronto and Port Ticonderoga principally. This is far from a pedestrian telling of her story. There are flash forwards early on, via news reports, to the deaths of those she knew, so as the past unfolds you wait for it to take the shape of the circumstances alluded to in these reports. There is a tale here about a woman, whose identity soon becomes clear, and her illicit love affair with a communist agitator and writer of sff pulp stories. Atwood skewers the evolving pulpy sff plot outline beautifully, not only creating a fascinating story in itself, but then putting that into the heart of this love affair, illuminating both of them, the mirror sff always holds up to us. Yet it is also a driving force in that relationship that will echo for years after.
If I enjoyed it more than the fabulous The Handmaid’s Tale it is because her crafting of characters, particularly Iris and Laura, has time to seep in. They are complete. The people they become are shaped by the lives they had and the society circles in which they moved. They’re as silenced, in the most important ways, by the patriarchy as Offred is and I say this despite the power their aunt Winifred wields over them throughout. Winifred’s soft power only has teeth because of how adept she is at sustaining the power structures around her. She could never shape or change them, indeed, her power is only ever over other women.
Iris is savage, hateful, vulnerable, grieving. She is flawed, and as we learn this, we are asked to judge whether her narrative is the most plausible recounting of the events that happen to her and her sister in their lives. Her story is a reckoning, a soul burning itself for knowledge, an attempt to gain sovereignty over her story in a world that has made her story, a different story, up for her. Atwood’s sublime perceptiveness about ageing, the capacities it provides and takes, are rendered in exquisite prose. The poet comes through time and again:
“Her long hair is blonde, as mine was then – pale, white almost, as if the red undertones had been washed away – the iron, the copper, all the hard metals…The face looks deaf: it has that vacant, posed imperviousness of all well-brought-up girls of the time.”
I love how she brings together echoes of Sampson, the idea of hair as symbolising strength yet being bleached of its metal, which is suggestive of armour and, of course, in the redness, a boldness and fire. But also the phrase ‘The face looks deaf’ is utterly perfect. It is synaesthetic, concise and evocative. It stopped me in my tracks, this nugget of perfection standing out in the immensely rich seam of observation that fills every line of this book.
“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
“Well, they bill by the minute, these lawyers, just like the cheaper whores.”
“Aimee looked like any newborn baby – she had that squashed face, as if she’d hit a wall at high speed.”
“…she tends to repeat herself, as the dead have a habit of doing. They say all the things they said to you in life; but they rarely say anything new.”
At the end of the book Atwood’s reflections, I think, turn to face the reader. The final lines are both a call to arms and an epitaph worthy of the ages, their power amplified, in some ways, by having experienced this novel, but really they stand alone. They belong to me and they belong to everyone who tries to tell their story.