Royal Classic Knitwear
Margaret Anne Doody
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury, 521 pp, £16.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 7475 4937 0
Margaret Atwood’s tenth novel is both familiar and new. As it is an Atwood novel, we get eggs, a ravine, shit, snow, an ethereal double or sisterly doppelgänger, a bridge, a river, an act of violence – images and themes from her earlier fiction metamorphosed. The Blind Assassin also possesses the unusual lyrical sensuousness that distinguished Alias Grace (1996), Atwood’s last major work. A complex rumination on narrative, it is as elegant and dynamic as its predecessor, but more contemplative and more edgy – and much more witty.
The Blind Assassin has multiple voices but is chiefly the narrative of the 82-year-old Iris Chase Griffen. Iris remembers and recounts her own life and that of her sister Laura, of whose death we learn in the very first sentence: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ It is part of the business of the novel to discover why Laura died. Iris and Laura grew up the daughters of a conscientious manufacturer who had inherited the estate, wealth and power of a successful Victorian enterprise in a typical well-to-do Ontario town called Port Ticonderoga. The Chase family wealth was based on buttons. (There is a hidden gibe here at Henry James, who in The Ambassadors would not let Strether tell us what was the embarrassing household article on which the Newsomes of Woolett had raised their fortune: ‘a small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use . . . It’s vulgar.’) We follow the fortunes of the button factory, and the fortunes of the Chase daughters, through the era between the wars and the course of World War Two.
Atwood has always been interested in history: her characters are steeped in the particularities of their era, most often an era close to the time of writing. Each section of Life before Man (1979), for example, is headed by a specific date in 1976; The Robber Bride (1993) covers the period from Vietnam through the cultural changes of the 1980s. In these novels, Atwood proved herself to be an acute recorder of the 20th century, a reliable reporter from the hinterland of private life, reflecting on the nastier struggles that take place there. Her most atypical novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), belongs to no historical period but is set in a grimly imagined future which is also a nightmare version of a recovered past.
The futuristic ending of The Handmaid’s Tale warns us of the difficulties of historical interpretation: ‘the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come.’ In Alias Grace – a profoundly disconcerting story of obsession, set in Ontario in the early 19th century, and based on an actual murder case – Atwood deliberately chose to go into the ‘great darkness’ of a past that was not her own past. The journey seems to have revitalised her imagination. The Blind Assassin’s historical scope is wide: it includes the era of the Chase girls’ grandparents and the building of the family mansion in the 1880s. Atwood illuminates the placid obscurities of life in Canada’s 20th century, from the plush ambitions and dubious traditions of the late Victorians through the false glow of the Edwardian era to the troubled aftermath of World War One, the fear of Bolshevism, the Depression.
As a history of an era, the novel is compassionate and satiric, the satire heightened by quotations from local and regional newspapers, expressive of the clichés of their various eras and the feebleness and bias of journalistic reporting. Portions of the quotations are taken from real papers, slightly altered to include some reference to fictional characters. Some examples are embarrassing – like the genuine and gooey account of the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage, taken from a 1936 article in a publication genuinely and absurdly called Mayfair. (Atwood is very alive to the colonial cringe as practised by Anglo-Canadians.) There are also many good touches that remind us of the cultural limits and habits of Iris’s time and place. At the unveiling of the memorial to the war dead in 1928 ‘even the Catholic priest was allowed to say a piece’: the words ‘even’ and ‘allowed’ sum up traditional Protestant attitudes as well as the power structure of Port Ticonderoga.
The more self-consciously truthful a recording is, the more apt it is to be a lie. (Unless the reader learns to read slantwise as we do with the quotes from the Toronto Star, the Port Ticonderoga Herald and Banner, the Mail and Empire.) Truth is seldom or never available. As Iris says,
the only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
Impossible, of course.
All recording of the truth is questioned in The Blind Assassin – including Iris’s reminiscences themselves.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.