Wow. This is a brilliant book – complex, thought-provoking, gripping, surprising and, I think, covering some of the big historical moments of the twentieth century from the perspective of women who are forced to compensate for their powerlessness with determination and wit.
Written in the first person by Iris Chase-Griffin, it tells the story of her and her sister Laura – who had driven herself off a bridge fifty years earlier.
Beginning in rural Canada in the early twentieth century, Iris and Laura are well-off children of a family which had made its fortune in button manufacturing. As the Depression kicks in, though, their fortunes change, their father turns to drink, as the economy collapses and the business folds, leading to unemployment in the town, circling by capitalist Richard Griffin and eventually the death of their father.
Iris ends up marrying Richard Griffin, to endure their family get financial support as the business closes down, and the narrative from Iris covers all these years – from the pair as young children to just after Laura has driven off the bridge.
Iris is an excellent character – until the end of the book her steeliness and resourcefulness are hidden to the reader and, importantly, to her husband Richard. She is treated at times horrifically and at others like a child by him and his scheming sister, and it’s only at the end of the book that Iris reveals what she’d really being doing all those years.
Laura is an intriguing character, highly moral and obsessed with God in most ways but rebellious and clear-sighted in others. We learn of her apparent relationship with Alex, a communist sympathiser who burnt down one of her father’s factories, and after Iris is married to Richard, how she is treated like a lunatic by Richard. In fact, none of this is quite as it seems and it transpires that in fact Richard and Laura had a very different relationship, as did Iris and Alex.
An apparently posthumously published book by Laura has led to her becoming an acclaimed literary celebrity – and chapters from the book, called the Blind Assassin, punctuate the book, telling a story that we assume until the end is a semi-autobiographical account of her relationship with Alex – a shocking, pulp-style tale of a well-off women carrying out a secret affair with a hard drinking, itinerant writer.
This is such a good novel – characters, the style, the complexity, the cagy narrator – but more than anything it’s like a take on the Great American Novel that tries to highlight the role of women in the great themes of history, economics and politics. Iris, Laura and even Richard’s sister have no power in the patriarchal world in which they live and so are forced to use ingenuity and determination to find ways to live with meaning and purpose and a future – ways that ultimately affect their lives, and those of their female children, detrimentally.