‘I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.
You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones.’
Two balls of yarn. Two colours. Take your pick.
Margaret Atwood calls them Iris and Laura. They are the Chase sisters.
If not careful, entanglement and a mess are inevitable; with each other, within each other.
And Atwood hasn’t been careful!
‘But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife’s stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge.’
Laura drove a car of a bridge. Died. She killed herself. Was it an impetuous act? Her mind killed her. But who killed her mind. Laura Chase was born with a black and white cognition; dismissing the grays. She wouldn’t, rather couldn’t read between lines. She saw the literal world in the literal sense; the abstract was too abstract for her. Iris was the elder sister, entrusted with always taking care of Laura.
The book is the story that a contrite Iris writes in remembrance of Laura for her disappeared and estranged granddaughter Sabrina; to tell her the truth. Spanning across generations, the story of her life has devastating secrets, infidelity and complicity. As Laura’s shade gets paler, Iris’s ball of yarn grows darker and darker; unknowingly, deliberately, self-imposed, thrusted. As she herself is pushed gradually into a deceitful marriage, the helplessness and sedation brings out a vulnerable numbness that doesn’t thwart her from finding solace in the one person she shouldn’t have.
And there’s a gory story within the story; a story that is published posthumously as Laura’s but isn’t. As Iris, the wife of a wealthy and prominent person in society, and her insouciant lover, a fugitive, knit this parallel bizarre fantasy tale during their pangs of furtive and passionate love making in rented rooms, another act of treacherous adultery is altering their lives. Who are these characters in the story they create; why does it bear a striking resemblance to them?
Is she the muted girl in the story the lover saves and elopes with; her tongue pulled out; quietened? Is she really being saved? And is the lover the blinded one; an outcast rebel turning a blind eye to the atrocities of life and the people in it with an urge for destroying? Who has orchestrated this affair between a blind and a mute; the lover or her, or both together, but does love need an orchestration, any orchestration?
Iris has answered for herself. At a dying age, will her contrition be accepted? Laura didn’t die of the abuse, of helplessness, she died from the snatching away of one thing that was never hers but always hers.
‘How could I have been so ignorant? she thinks. So stupid, so unseeing, so given over to carelessness. But without such ignorance, such carelessness, how could we live? If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next – if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions – you’d be doomed. You’d be as ruined as God. You’d be a stone. You’d never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning You’d never love anyone, ever again. You’d never dare to.
Drowned now – the tree as well, the sky, the wind, the clouds. All she has left is the picture. Also the story of it.
The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along to its twisted road.’
Most of Atwood’s characters are furtive; she’s imposed them with secrets they need to bury; a few can and a few fail. Crafted vividly, Atwood has given us a patchwork of two stories fused in one. Very well written; a compelling read! Would have liked to read more about Laura – she was different; she had an innocence that comes from simplicity. Predictable, vulnerable yet not boring.
‘”Laura, what are you doing?” I said. “That’s the Bible.”
“I’m cutting out the parts I don’t like.”
I uncrumpled the pages she’d tossed into the wastebasket.; swathes of Chronicles, pages and pages of Leviticus, the little snippet from St. Matthew in which Jesus curses the barren fig tree. I remembered now that Laura had been indignant about that fig tree, in her Sunday-schooldays. She’d been furious that Jesus had been so spiteful towards a tree. “We all have our bad days” Reenie had commented, briskly whipping up egg whites in a yellow bowl.’
‘The sun declines, the shadows of the curtains move across the bed. Voices on the street outside, unknown languages. I will always remember this, she tells herself. Then: Why am I thinking about memory? It’s not then yet, it’s now. It’s not over.’
My rating – 9/10
Book cover - © https://www.unitheque.com/the-blind-assassin/virago/Livre/140224
Margaret Atwood - © https://thegentlewoman.co.uk/library/margaret-atwood