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Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Blindfold

Image result for Hustvedt BlindfoldI have felt more intrigued by this book than by any I have recently read. It was in fact a rather painful read being an account in the first person of a young woman's experience of mental instability - I can only surmise from the powerful sense of authenticity that the author (Siri Hustvedt) has herself experienced something similar.

It is a short novel but contains a great deal to challenge the reader - the nature and role of memory; what is "normal"; questions of gender and sexual identity; moral uncertainty. It seems that in the novel Iris, a very intelligent but highly insecure post-graduate student, is looking back over about 8 years of her life at various events, incidents and relationships which she presumably considers to have been formative. We are given no indication of her mental or emotional state at point of narration, though it might be guessed that the recollection is some form of therapy.The structure is disjointed, and probably intentionally so, to reflect the mental state of the narrator. Strange names appear, such as "Mr. Morning" and "Paris" (a man); the narrator's name is Iris Vegan though she uses pseudonyms at various times. 

The whole novel is an act of remembering and a central theme of the work is about the nature of memory - do we remember things as they were or are memories primarily a construction? It is not impossible that the whole novel, presented as Iris's memories, are in fact simply her fantasies. Much is made of Iris recalling in detail, at a dinner party, a particular painting and giving a minute description of it, but failing to remember a significant element. So her account of her experiences may also be unreliable.

Why is the novel titled "The Blindfold"? Certainly there is an incident involving a blindfold but it seems no more significant in itself than various other things that happen to Iris. Perhaps there is an implication that her cumulative experiences have resulted in a new clarity of vision about herself, as if a blindfold has been removed? At various points in the novel she sees herself in a mirror and seems surprised that what she sees does not correspond to how she thought of herself, though this seems to have little effect on her behaviour.

There are hints of sexual ambiguity at various points in the novel - Iris herself adopts a semi-male identity for a period. It is implied that some of the male characters may in fact be bi-sexual, and some others are borderline deviants. There is a disturbing scene in a mental ward where she imagines (?) being sexually assaulted by an elderly female patient. Iris is presented as being sexually active, sexually interested, and attractive, but sex is not enough for her, and her motivations for engaging in relationships are unclear, especially to herself.

The reader is not told much about her background but it seems clear that she is divorced physically and intellectually from her home environment. She is attempting to swim in an unfamiliar and, at times, hostile milieu, and seems likely to drown. The way she presents, and apparently sees, herself is as a reflection of others. It seems that Iris is in fact searching for an identity, and consistently failing to find one. The book ends abruptly and it may be that the title in fact suggests that she remains blindfolded in spite of all she has experienced.

I was gripped by this novel, and am sure that some aspects of it will remain with me. My sense is that it is about as close as a "normal" person is likely to come to experiencing what it is like to be mentally ill.

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