Atwood Excels without Excess
South China Morning Post, Sept 2000
It’s not often that a book lives up to its blurb. Margaret Atwood’s dazzling and poignant new offering does. This is a novel that defies categorization. Part mystery, part science fiction, part love story, it opens in startling fashion. “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Much of the book is told in the form of a first person narrative by Iris Chase – Laura’s sister – describing the events that led to Laura’s mysterious death at 25. Interspersed is a science fiction novel written by Laura, titled The Blind Assassin, which tells the tale of two nameless and secretive lovers. Scattered through the book are newspaper clippings detailing important events in the lives of the socially prominent Chase sisters, stretching from the 1930s to the 1990s.
Laura and Iris grow up in a small Canadian town in the early 30s, daughters of a prosperous button manufacturer. The sisters become inseparable after their mother dies. Iris, then barely 10, is the sensible, practical older sibling, used to shepherding the sensitive, dreamy Laura. During the depression, the button factories collapse and the Chase family is virtually ruined. Iris ends up being pressured to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche businessman. After the death of their father, Richard becomes Laura’s guardian, and sends her to boarding school. After a supposed nervous breakdown, Laura ends up in a mental asylum, where she dies a few years later.
Laura’s novel is published posthumously, and she wins fame as a celebrated author. The latter half of the book is given to probing the circumstances of Laura’s death. Was it a suicide or an accident? Eventually, Iris discovers some old notebooks left by Laura, which hold the secret of her death. As things escalate to a shocking and unpredictable climax, it is apparent that nothing is what it seems.
Atwood’s daring use of three different storytelling techniques does not make for an easy read, yet her smooth, effortless prose knits together the disparate threads of the plot. As the novel progresses, Atwood’s compelling characters become even more complex, revealing surprising depths. In Iris, Atwood has created a fascinating heroine, who evolves from a somewhat dull and feeble teenager into a determined and resourceful woman. Atwood’s skill is especially evident in her evocative portrayal of the genteel yet stifling lives of Canadian women in the early part of the century. Take, for instance, this description of one of the Chase ancestors, a pedigreed society hostess: “Adelie’s task would have been to design these dinners, then to avoid being seen to devour them. Custom would have dictated that she only pick at her food while in company: chewing and swallowing were such blatantly carnal activities. I expect she had a tray sent up to her room afterwards. Ate with 10 fingers.”
Atwood is at her best, though, when gently flaying the hypocrisy of the times. Iris sardonically describes Richard’s roving eye, “Men had urges in those days… they lived underground in the dark nooks and crannies of a man’s being, and once in a while they would gather strength and sally forth like a plague or rats. They were so cunning and strong; how could any real man be expected to prevail against them?”
This is not a slim book, yet not a word is wasted and the pace never flags. Atwood writes of wrenching grief, shocking deeds and society soirees with the same spare prose, never giving in to excess. Unlike her tragic heroine Laura, Atwood is remarkably prolific, having written more than 35 books. But like her, she sticks to the point.