It starts with a bang.
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
Meanwhile the narrator Iris Chase, goes back into time. Her slow memory lingers upon a mansion called Avilion in a place called Port Ticonderoga, like mist. It meanders through Avilion’s halls and gardens and recounts the stories of its inhabitants, grandmother Adelia, grandfather Benjamin’s button factory their three sons and the death of two of them in the war, her mother (who was proposed to by Norval at the skating rink). Their father, Norval devastated not only by the loss of his two brothers in the First World War but also by its cruelties and their mother, trying to hold the strings together, even as Norval spends more and more time locked up in the turret of the house, drinking. Then there is Reenie – the maid who comes to the house as a teenager, and of course, Laura, Iris’ younger sister an ‘uneasy child’.
It took Laura a long time to get herself born into this world, said Reenie. It was like she couldn’t decide whether or not it was really such a smarter idea. Then she was sickly at first and we almost lost her- I guess she was still making up her mind. But in the end she decided to give it a try and so she took ahold of life, and got some better.
The story told through the eyes of Iris, now an old, silvery, slippery, embarassed about being under Myra’s (Reenie’s daughter) care is simply one-sided and that is what makes it even more intriguing. Told from Iris’s point of view it is an account of the sisters’ childhood in Avilion. Half understood and dim, their mother’s death, (This event changed everything) Laura’s whims and fancies, their tutors, coupled with Reenie’s instructions worded to protect the girls from the realities of the outside world and bringing them any ‘shame’ and ‘dishonour’. Some questions like where Norval was when his wife suffered an abortion, did he have a mistress or did Mr Erskine really molest Laura remain suspended like question marks for they exist in another bubble for the little Iris who is just living her life according to the rules set by adults.
–Reenie said a girl alone with a man should be able to hold a dime between her knees. She was always afraid that people – men – would see our legs the part above the knee. Of women who allowed this to happen, she would say: Curtain’s coming up, where’s the show? Or Might as well hangout a sigh, or more balefullly, She’s asking for it, she’ll get whats coming to her, or in the worst cases, She’s an accident waiting to happen.-
Laura soon drifts towards God, much to the consternation of both Reenie and Iris and the only person who is able to draw her out is Alex Thomas, who is introduced to Laura through Callie Fitzsimmons, Norval’s bohemian artist lover. Alex, introduces himself as an orphan, during the Chase family’s labour day celebrations. Even as an adolescent Laura engages with him, Iris comes searching for her: The three sit down under the tree and chat. This part of the story, trails along with the narrative in the form of a photograph, which the local journalist Elwood Murray takes as the three engage with each other. However, Iris only has one portion of the photograph, in which she is sitting with Alex wearing a white blouse and skirt tucked under her needs. The only evidence that a third person exists is in the form of a hand on the edge of the photograph from where it was cut – a symbol that takes on layers of meaning throughout the book. The afternoon of Labour day celebrations is also the day when Iris sees her future husband, the industrialist Richard Griffin from Toronto and his sister Winifred.
Things take a different turn from here. Norval continues to incur losses at the factory. He is forced to retrench people or reduce their working hours. This leads to widespread unrest and arson in the Chase button factory of which Alex Thomas is held responsible. Alex Thomas goes into hiding in a place only Laura and Iris know. One day, even as Alex hides in Avilion’s attic he kisses Iris, when she wanders in alone without Laura. The incident makes Iris to wonder whether Alex did the same to Laura. Soon Alex leaves his hiding place in Avilion. Richard Griffin asks for Iris’ hand in marriage in exchange for a ‘certain amount’. After Norval’s death (which happens while Iris is honeymooning in Europe, the news of which Richard prefers to hide from Iris) Laura, much to her chagrin and displeasure, is forced to live with the Griffins.
But then this is not the only narrative in the book. Somewhere in between the pages two lovers meet in old apartments and run-down hotels. Hitler advances through Europe, exhilarating many like Richard Griffin. The socialists are being hunted down and Laura’s book ‘The Blind Assasin’ is taking shape. Apart from that there are newspaper reports about Aimee, Iris’ daughter’s, death, Richard’s Death and before that about speeches made by Richard in support of Munich Pact, the socialists, the disappearance of Laura Chase and between all this an aging Iris laments Aimee who was snatched away by Winifred and who later came to believe that Iris was not her real mother.
Margaret Atwood deftly weaves a tale taking us through the labyrinth of memory and imagination, in which guilt and love line the cracks of human betrayal.