Shortly after the Second World War, Iris Chase's sister Laura drove over a cliff to her death. Some say she did it on purpose. A few years later her strange, slightly risqué novel, The Blind Assassin, made her a famous iconoclast. Now Iris, living on her own in her Canadian home town of Port Ticonderoga, has decided to write down the story of her family, encompassing two wars, the Great Depression, and of course the mystery of her sister's death.
This book is like an ogre: it's full of layers, by which I mean layers of storytelling. First, there's Iris's reality - what's happening to her now, at the end of the twentieth century. She's telling us about it, writing in an almost conversational style, though it's not clear why or who for until the end. After a while she also tells the story of her parents, followed by her childhood. Iris's writings are interrupted by both historical documents - newspaper stories and the like - and extracts from Laura's novel, in which a young socialite meets clandestinely with a writer of science fantasy stories for pulp magazines. The final layer of the story occurs within the novel, as the writer tells her a story of his own devising - this is where the titular blind assassin comes in.
The book starts out as a slow burn - Iris is an engaging enough character, but her life as a lonely, elderly woman, and one seemingly ill-equipped to deal with her own twilight years, isn't immediately gripping. There's also a strange disparity between her wit in writing and her real life business, both in her current life and her earlier history; her internal monologue is insightful, even biting, but when the narrative includes her in scenes of her life, she's disappointingly passive and dull. Perhaps this is part of the point, though: Iris, a child of the First World War, exists in a world where privilege, knowledge and choice in general is denied to women. The Chase sisters are schooled at home by a succession of terrible tutors in subjects that teach them nothing of any use. Not that much later, in one of the more harrowing sequences of the book, Iris, still barely a woman, is married off to a much older businessman to secure his purchase of the Chase family business in the hard times following the war.
It's a pretty miserable life, though the narrative is very matter-of-fact about it in that sense. Iris's father is the best example of this attitude: he's neither demonised or deified, instead presented as an almost featureless cipher before the war (and before Iris was old enough to truly know him), and as a broken shell afterward, acting on some internal compass that's clearly cracked.
I have to admit I found The Bllind Assassin pretty hard going in the middle, and it was largely because I thought I knew where the main story was going, but I desperately wanted more of the pulp narrative of the blind assassin. After all, we already know that Iris ends up old and alone, her sister having driven off a cliff. Obviously there's some hidden truth coming, but it takes its time; indeed, it's barely addressed explicitly, though Iris does acknowledge what her intended reader has no doubt discovered before she reveals the secret. It's not spoiling anything, I think, to say that she reveals something quite unpleasant, but by the time it comes it seems not to have quite the sting it could have had. (I'm famous among some of my friends for wanting stories to begin at that point, to see what happens after; since, as you might expect, the revelation and how its handled is what leads to Laura's demise, there's not a great deal of story left afterwards.)
But despite the above misgivings, I really liked The Blind Assassin. Though I found Iris frustrating through the lens of the 21st century - modern, elderly Iris is so knowing, it's hard not to be shouting "why couldn't you be like this forty years ago?!" as she describes her passive young self - her story is truly tragic, and there's a lot of detail in the book. It's description of life in a small industry town through the huge changes of the 20s, 30s and 40s is fascinating, with the fortunes of her father's factory, the radically different sexual politics and the attitude of businessmen to Germany in the lead up to World War II all worthy of novels of their own.
Still, I can't help thinking that if I could, I'd buy a copy of Amazing Stories if it just had the story of the real blind assassin...or even a copy of Laura Chase's book. It's the ultimate literary frustration to read a novel which depicts a fictional novel you suspect you'd enjoy just as much, if not more.
Page count: 560
Book's title mentioned on page: 240 (sort of)
Best name encountered: Iris Chase (it just resonates for the character)
New words: [I'll have to find it and look them up; there were one or two]
Inner Five-year-old score: 4 (for the story within the novel within the novel); 1 (for the novel; waaaaay to intense for a five year old!)
Fun Wikipedia fact: The Blind Assassin is considered an example of "Southern Ontario Gothic", a sub-genre of gothic fiction first described in 1973 but sometimes derided by critics.