BOOK REVIEW / Dark insights from a wandering eye: 'The Blindfold' - Siri Hustvedt: Hodder & Stoughton, 8.99

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SIRI HUSTVEDT's first novel explores the life of Iris Vegan, a heroine in search of her own identity. Iris's father is a linguistics professor; she is an impoverished graduate student living alone in New York, writing a paper about a 19th-century fictional heroines entitled, 'Fictions within fictions'. Iris is Siri spelt backwards; Siri studied literature at Columbia. One does not have to be very cunning to realise, within the first couple of pages, that this is yet another in a long line of fashionably clever novels about the writing of novels. Elementary, Ms Hustvedt.

But The Blindfold is far more interesting than that. For a start, it has a plot. It also has vivid and compelling characters; it is scary, sinister and readable. It is, in fact, a convincing fiction, while at the same time it deconstructs certain notions about fiction.

In the course of a long struggle to define herself, Iris (the eye / I) encounters a number of strong characters, all of whom threaten to overwhelm her fragile ego. First there is Mr Morning, a writer who uses a number of different names: 'Herbert B Morning couldn't possibly write for 'True Confessions', but Fern Luce can. It's as simple as that.'

Mr Morning employs Iris - who lies to him about her own surname in a vague attempt to protect herself - to write short essays about the individual belongings of a dead woman, who was found murdered in the basement of his apartment block. As he tells her fragments of the story of the dead woman, Iris begins to suspect that he might have been the murderer. But when she confronts him and demands the truth, he tells her: 'What you've forgotten is that some things are unspeakable.'

Iris escapes from the clutches of Mr Morning only to end up in an unhappy love affair. Then she meets George, a photographer, in whom she confides: 'soon he knew my story, or at least most of it. George inspired telling.' She allows him to photograph her - but is horrified by the distortions of the resulting portrait, which is cropped in such a way as to suggest dismemberment. People begin to recognise her after seeing the photograph: she is finally compelled to deny to a stranger that she is Iris Vegan.

Perhaps as a result of this episode, Iris is increasingly tormented by migraines. Her headaches serve a useful metaphorical purpose: Iris is so blinded by pain that she can no longer read books. But Hustvedt's power as a descriptive writer is such that her heroine's pain feels completely real: you almost want to clutch your own head in sympathy. The same gripping prose carries Iris into hospital, where she meets Mrs O, a mad old woman who has been left incoherent after some nervous catastrophe. 'What remained was a fragmented being, a person shattered into a thousand pieces, but those bits of Mrs O inhabited the room like a crowd of invisible demons.' Iris is both fascinated and repelled by the woman: Mrs O reminds her of her own fragile head. Later, Iris must literally fight the old woman off, when Mrs O tries to envelop her in a throttling embrace.

The final torment comes in the shape of a fictional character, a sadistic boy named Klaus, whose identity she half assumes while translating his story in a German novella for her Professor. In this, the most starkly written and ominous section of the book, the heroine starts dressing in a man's suit, and telling people that her name is Klaus. In various seedy bars she meets people who tell her the stories of their lives; but her own life deteriorates as she becomes thinner and poorer, until she looks like a starved street urchin.

She is finally rescued by her Professor, with whom she has an affair. But their relationship has been compromised from the start: his violent editing of her translation of the novella leaves her feeling 'battered'. Once again, as with the photographs and the essays, her artistic persona is under attack. The violence becomes more explicit when the Professor blindfolds her in their last, brutal sexual encounter.

Iris manages to tear off the blindfold; later, thinking that she is now seeing clearly for the first time, she tells her unhappy story to Paris, an art critic whom she believes to be her friend. Paris, unfortunately, is a creep (never trust a critic) - a parasite who feeds off the misery of others.

So there is no happy ending, no feminist triumph. Iris simply disappears at the end of the novel, escaping from the revolting critic, escaping from the reader, running, 'as they say, like a bat out of hell.' It is a smart ending to a very smart novel.

George looked down at my feet. 'I think you should be barefoot. The dress is good, but your shoes and socks are funny.'

'Are they?' I said, looking at my cotton anklets and sandals.

'They're childlike.'

'It doesn't matter to me,' I said and bent down to remove them.

'No,' he said. 'Let me.'

I sat down on the floor with my legs outstretched in front of me. George sat too, taking my right foot in his lap. He undid the buckle slowly and slipped the shoe off my foot. He was smiling. I watched his fingers gently gather the material at the top of the sock and pull it down my ankle and over my heel. He folded the sock and laid it over the shoe. Then he proceeded to the next foot. There was no hurry in him. His movements were methodical, precise. After he had pulled off my other shoe and sock, he held my naked foot for a few seconds, his expression now sober. I leaned back on my hands and closed my eyes. The room's brilliance left its red markings on the inside skin of my eyelids, glowing through my blindness. I could hear George breathing, then his footsteps across the room and back, but I didn't open my eyes until I heard the click of his camera.

'We've started?' I said. 'Just like that?'

'Just like that,' he said.

'I'm not sure I know what to do.'

'Yes, you do.'

I didn't reply. Perhaps I did know, after all. The sunlight from the window was warm on my back, and I could feel my hair loose over my neck. There is a pleasure in being looked at, and I seemed to discover it all over again as I sat there on the floor listening to the camera's shutter . . . Images and words passed through my head in the way they do before sleep.

(Photograph omitted)

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