We'll choose knowledge no matter what, we'll maim ourselves in the process, we'll stick our hands into the flames for it if necessary. Curiosity is not our only motive: love or grief or despair or hatred is what drives us on. We'll spy relentlessly on the dead: we'll open their letters, we'll read their journals, we'll go through their trash, hoping for a hint, a final word, an explanation, from those who have deserted us--who've left us holding the bag, which is often a good deal emptier than we'd supposed.
But what about those who plant such clues, for us to stumble on? Why do they bother? Egotism? Pity? Revenge? A simple claim to existence, like scribbling your initials on a washroom wall? The combination of presence and anonymity--confession without penance, truth without consequences--it has its attractions. Getting the blood off your hands, one way or another.
I'm becoming convinced that Margaret Atwood can do no wrong. Every time I pick up another of her books, I'm completely enthralled.
This is really a story within a story within a story, of at least three different levels, so I suppose I should break it down for you here:
1) The main story, or top layer of narration, is a bittersweet tale (skewed heavily towards the bitter) of two sisters growing up during the Depression. Iris, the older sister, is now an old woman and tells the story through a series of flashbacks. We're also allowed glimpses into her current life: a crone with a lifetime of regrets, disinherited and one of the last of her family, whispered about by the neighbors. This perspective affords her both the wisdom of age and hindsight as she relates the story of her younger sister Laura's troubled life and suicide at age twenty-five. The events that follow are just as gripping--immediately following Laura's death, Iris discovers a manuscript and has The Blind Assassin
2) The Blind Assassin
--that is, Laura Chase's novel, not Margaret Atwood's--is a romance of sorts. It's centered around two star-crossed lovers who meet clandestinely: an upper-class woman, who seems to be otherwise engaged, and a pulp novelist who is on the run after some unnamed crime. To entertain them both during cold nights in dirty rented rooms, he begins to tell her stories he's working on, like...
3) Sakiel-Norn: On this distant, fictional planet, a pair of similarly star-crossed lovers meet: a young virginal sacrifice, who has had her tongue cut out so she cannot scream or talk before the next morning's ceremony; and an assassin, blinded as a child slave, who has been sent to kill both her and the King. Against all odds, the two escape and have some exciting science fictional adventures. While these interludes start off as being a little "WTF"-y (I mean, it's truly pulp: giant lizard men and beautiful alien babes who absolutely live to fulfill the sexual whims of visiting spacemen), the parallels between all of the stories soon become clear. The symbolism isn't gratuitous or heavy-handed, but it's definitely there.
This is a slow read, but that's not to say it's boring. Melancholy would be a good word. It's depressing, but it didn't make me cry--and I tend to tear up at the drop of a hat with most books. I read it with almost a certain numbness, but it was deep, cutting. Haunting, even. Maybe it's because of Iris's own numbness as she retells her story--she's resigned to her fate, though we see brief fits of nostalgia and happiness that allude to the vibrant spirit of a woman who has otherwise been dealt a truly shitty hand of cards in life. It's heart wrenching. It's also really very beautiful.