BOOK REVIEW / Victim of the gender trap: The blindfold by Siri Hustvedt, Hodder pounds 8.99

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The Independent Culture
MARILYN MONROE complained in her autobiography that 'people had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person'. Siri Hustvedt's brilliant first novel addresses the same problem of female identity, of how a woman is to develop a firm sense of self when others regard her only as a screen on which to project their fantasies.

Her heroine's passivity and powerlessness are evoked by her name, Iris Vegan. She is both the eye and the I of the novel, central to it but unable to act; her surname suggests the meagre diet on which she exists, physically and emotionally. Iris's search for the basics of life, human warmth and enough money to make ends meet, is cruelly rewarded by four encounters which disturb her fragile identity to the point of breakdown.

Iris is a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, an out-of-town girl whose family lives far away in Minnesota. Unable to pay her rent, she answers an advertisement for a research assistant placed by Mr Morning, a recluse who lives alone in a fourth-floor apartment smelling of cats. Mr Morning gives Iris a box and a tape recorder, telling her to take them away and describe on tape the objects in the box. Inside is a dirty white glove, whose colour and texture she duly records, as instructed, in a hushed voice; the second object, even more bizarrely, is a cotton wool ball stained with make-up.

Unsettled by this exposure to the detritus of another woman's life, Iris investigates and discovers that both objects belong to a murdered woman, a nurse knifed to death while doing her laundry in Mr Morning's apartment block. Iris has become the unwitting accomplice of Mr Morning's fetishism, his voyeuristic exploration of the minutiae of the dead woman's life; his systematic pursuit exposes the vulnerability of both women, and raises the terrifying possibility that they are interchangeable.

Other strange episodes follow. A photographer exhibits a cropped portrait of Iris which amounts almost to a dismemberment, her arms severed at the elbows and her face sliced in two by a strand of hair. When she goes into hospital for several months with severe migraine, a demented old woman climbs into bed and tries to embrace her. Finally, her college professor - who also becomes her lover - sets her the task of translating a German novella written in the 1930s, under whose influence she wanders the streets of New York late at night, acting out the part of the book's hero.

These stories are told in a spare, unadorned prose which occasionally calls to mind the style of Hustvedt's husband, the novelist Paul Auster. Yet Hustvedt's subject-matter is entirely her own, revealing a profound insight into the forces which shape and distort female identity. Appropriated and objectified by those around her, stumbling through life like someone wearing the blindfold of the title, Iris instinctively understands that the core of her problem is gender - a trap from which she temporarily escapes by taking on the persona of a cruel and confident boy.

Iris is not, of course, the average woman but an extreme type, one whose fascination with male power ruthlessly exposes the fragility of her own psyche; once again the Marilyn Monroe analogy seems apt. But The Blindfold is a dark, mesmerising debut, a scary evocation of the isolation of city life and the dissolution which threatens a woman with few inner resources.

(Photograph omitted)