A good friend and good reader recently asked me, after she had finished The Robber Bride for her first time, if I agreed it was "obvious" that Charis/Karen killed Zenia. I was startled enough (the answer to the stated question, eh?) that I went back and read Chapter 52, then backed up and read the entire section ("The Toxique," Chapter 50-56). And then went back to the beginning and read the whole book for the (who's keeping track, anymore?) fifth or sixth time in five years. And no, I still don't think it's obvious, but I can see why one might choose her, if one had to choose. I've never had to choose. That is to say, I regard Zenia's death as a meaningless act of God (God's initials being, in this case, MA — and isn't that an interesting coincidence?). My opinion is not an example of intellectual laziness. It is derived from my interpretation of what comes before that death. But I confess that Zenia's death has always "bothered" me, not because I couldn't "guess" who killed her (don't forget Larry and West), but because I couldn't make sense of it.
So here I am, trying to. Make sense of it, I mean. A place to begin, I think, is eliminating the obvious suspects. Larry, for example, is easy. One wonders why Boyce doesn't clear up the confusion about Larry when Roz tells him she has "discovered" that Larry is having an affair with Zenia. That can be explained. It's possible that Boyce doesn't know why Larry is seeing Zenia until after he talks with Larry that evening. It's possible that he feels that Roz should confront Zenia anyway, and that allaying her fears would dissuade her. All we can be sure of, at the moment when Roz is presenting her "scenario" to Boyce (Ch 53), is that he knows Larry is gay. He may not feel that it's appropriate for him to tell her this, rather than letting Larry do it, and if he doesn't know about Zenia's character and about her other hook in Larry (the drugs), then he may not realize the gravity of what he's setting Roz up for. So we take at face value the Larry/Boyce alibi, unless we are willing to believe that Larry and Boyce conspired to kill her, and we eliminate Larry from the suspect list.
West, I'm afraid, is a different matter entirely, and the difference reflects one of the odd symmetries of the novel. The emotion-driven extrovert, Roz, gets her beloved son alibied by some nice simple, incontrovertible (well, provable) facts. The fact-lover, introverted Tony, gets her beloved husband alibied by the reader's emotional assessment and not much else. We never, ever believe Zenia's claim that West gave her the black eye that she shows Charis (nor does anyone else), or that he has a secret violent side. We just don't buy it. He has no alibi for the time of her death and a great motive — revenge for humiliation. Tony exonerates him because he doesn't smell too strongly of beer! And we go along with it. He couldn't have done it. Ok.
Which brings us to the fledgling crones, Tony, Charis, and Roz. My first impulse is to argue that because of the points-of-view adopted throughout the novel, if any one of them had killed Zenia, we would know, because we get in the head of each one, where we would notice. Things are not quite as simple as all that, for two reasons, and one of them, Charis' "differently defined" view of reality, sets up Charis as a prime suspect. The other is that the internal POVs are a devious roomful of mirrors. We are seldom in the present in this novel, in spite of the fact that the entire book is couched in the present tense. No more than 100 of its 500-plus pages describe events as they are occurring (two meals at The Toxique, the last visit to the hotel, and the final funeral). Take for example, Tony's explanation of what happened when she went to Room 1409 and confronted Zenia. That section begins, two pages into Ch 51, with Roz saying, "All right, tell." But is what follows "telling"? Well, no. When whatever it is is over, the next statement, the first sentence of Ch 52, undercuts that logical presumption: "This is not how Tony tells it...."
Well, what is it, then? How it happened, or how Tony remembers it, or what exactly? And before considering the question, consider Tony's view of history, that "What was," "What happened," only exists in the form of memories. The Past, Tony muses often enough, is helpless, at our mercy (Ch 17, for example). As outsiders, looking in on the history of this war between these three women and their enemy, we can only trust her memories and our instincts. And before we settle on that, consider the last sentence of Tony's recollection of the final meeting, how it ends for her: "It's as if she's been asleep." And finally, consider what is for me the oddest thing of all: What Tony, trained observer and fact-maven, sees in the room is neatness, "unlike Zenia," "as if no one is living there." And what Charis sees, only minutes later (no more than two hours could pass between Tony's departure and Charis' arrival), is consistent, characteristic reality: a mess that could only be accounted for by something that could not have happened, given what Tony saw: a messy party of some sort the night before.
In spite of the contradictions — the reality Charis sees, the unlikely scene in front of Tony — we are faced with an odd parallelism: For Charis the confrontation is a fantasy, for Tony it is a dream. In glittering contrast, for Roz it is the simple sordid reality that can be handled with money, its imaginative elements nothing but amusing pulp fiction. The section begins with a dream for each woman. And such dreams! They are at once characteristic and very disturbing to the reader's equilibrium. Tony dreams murder and mayhem; Charis dreams she is Zenia; Roz dreams that Zenia is a man (which Boyce suggests a few pages later). Roz's dream is at once the simplest and for an odd detail the most unnerving. Her dream includes an image from Tony's private, unshared memories, the description of the bloody footprints, Tony's father's father's bloody footprints in the snow that led Griff, her father, home. A story her father told her. Not a story we have any reason she ever told Roz. What's going on here?
What are we to make of Tony's seeing the room "neat"? Did she lie about the neatness? If so, why? To what possible end? And, more jarring but important, to whom did she lie? Us? Did Charis imagine the messiness? Again, why? And I don't want to hear bromides about how "Why" just isn't relevant with people like Charis. If we assume that Charis is so out of touch with reality that she can't even get the room right, then we can't trust anything she tells us, and that, I'm afraid, is too extreme for my view of her. Read Chapter 52 thinking, "None of this is really happening,"" and see how satisfactory that feels. No way. Do not lose track of the fact that Charis' strange pre-science is occasionally validated.
She spends her introductory five chapters convinced that Zenia is alive, in some sense, and confident (apprehensive, then) that she will see her again. When Zenia enters The Toxique, Charis is not surprised. In her dream before she goes to the hotel, before the confrontation with Zenia, she sees Billy the way Zenia describes him. The ground is pure quicksand here. It could be that Charis wakes up every morning thinking that Zenia is alive and expecting to see her that day. It could be that "Karen" has spotted Zenia already but not told "Charis" (and Atwood doesn't bother to tell us...). It could be that Charis imagines that Zenia tells her what she in fact dreams before meeting Zenia. Could be. But is her knowing in advance what Zenia is going to reveal less credible than Roz "borrowing" Tony's memories? And if she fantasizes Zenia's revelations, once more: Why?
So, what then? We have to believe this: Charis has two attacks of Karen-ness (she can't kill Zenia during the first one, because it's before Roz sees Zenia. Unless Roz is lying...). She kills Zenia in the second one? Charis thinks Karen did it. If so, Charis wasn't there — I mean literally not there; she couldn't have gotten back from the island in time. There simply isn't time, given what we are told, for her to go home, take a nap, come back and kill Zenia a few hours before meeting her friends again at The Toxique in the early evening. Like Larry, she is disqualified by facts, but also, in her case, by our feelings. Interestingly, I think yes, she could have done it, if "it" had been to take Zenia to the balcony and throw her off like Jezebel. But that isn't how Zenia died. She died of a heroin overdose, possibly self-administered, possibly by accident. Try, please, to imagine Charis/Karen killing Zenia with heroin. It is simply inconceivable. Not unlikely, but inconceivable, Mighty Karen, Goddess of Vengeance, notwithstanding.
So what are we left with, if we insist on Charis/Karen's guilt? Well, Charis has a Karen attack, for no motive but simple revenge. Notice that of the three, only Charis has no practical reason to kill Zenia. Tony has both the threat to West and the new threat, the discovery of her unethical behavior (as an undergraduate, she wrote a history paper for Zenia) which would effectively destroy her career. Roz has, as they all do, revenge to think about. But she also has the threats to her son, who could end up in prison or even dead, and the financial threat, the endless hemorrhage of blackmail. But Charis. No point in blackmailing her, since she has nothing. No threat to her daughter Augusta. Nothing but simple revenge.
So in order for her to be the culprit, we must believe that with the least motive, she does what the others choose not to do. She has her second Karen attack, and she returns to the hotel. She goes upstairs, and when she confronts Zenia, Zenia has already taken the fatal dose of heroin. (No way Karen did that, pumped her full of heroin. I don't care how "differently motivated" she is from Charis. Forget Karen jabbing her with that needle. Or if you won't forget it, describe it to me in detail. How does she prepare the dosage? How does she get Zenia's cooperation?) When Charis arrives at that hotel room, Zenia is either dead or dying, but she can open the door. Enter Charis, or Karen rather, mighty in her wrath, who doesn't care whether Zenia is dead or dying. She's supposed to go off the tower (the Tarot card earlier that day, and Jezebel's fate, and a raft of premonitions), so off the tower she's got to go. However, if she's dead before she hits the fountain, then technically — I'm sorry — but technically Karen didn't kill her, she just abused the corpse. But the details are moot. It was not Charis.
I'm going to cut to the chase with Roz. She didn't do it. If she had, she would have told us. If she had, she wouldn't wonder if Charis did it (Ch 55), or whether Larry did it. Likewise, Tony would not worry that West might have killed her, had she done it herself. Charis worries that Karen did it. Her worries are also unfounded. Yes, logically, the only "good" suspect is Charis. And she is tempting, tempting enough that we should be grateful that Roz and Tony intervene to protect her from drawing the attention of the "men in suits." And no, she didn't do it either.
So, who did? Well, I'm fine with the exotic mundane, myself. I'm fine with suicide, for one thing. After all, Zenia sets that up in an early conversation with the youthful Tony, in Ch 20. After asking Tony "What would cause you to kill yourself" (and on second reading, knowing what we know about Zenia's use for research, doesn't that totally theoretical question give us a shudder?), the first example Zenia comes up with for something that might is "cancer... unbearable pain." So suicide is fine. Accidents are Ok, too. We know from Roz's detective that Zenia has been involved with drugs, including drug dealing, since before she broke up with Mitch. The empty suitcase that Roz saw, around 5 p.m., is filled with heroin later in the evening. One bag of the heroin is open, and Zenia, who has ovarian cancer (these are all "facts" in the sense that they are supplied by "men in suits" rather than our unreliable narrators), has shot up with some unusually high-grade and potentially deadly drugs. While the heroin is killing her, she falls from the balcony. Dropped dead.
I'm uncomfortable with that last, the coincidence of dying conveniently near the balcony and off-balance. So, somebody pushes her off? Maybe. Maybe her drug-dealing cronies do to her what she suggests they might do to Larry, and the overdose is murder. But that seems unlikely: not that they might kill her, but that they would throw her into the fountain after killing her, and that they would leave six- or seven-figures-worth of heroin sitting on the bed. So maybe it's the enemies who want revenge for her shadowy role in the end of Project Babylon. Because (ominous bassoons) she "knows too much." But Zenia's real adventures are the sordid trivia of drug-smuggling, not the grand theatrics of gun-running and espionage, so I doubt it. And for the same reason, I doubt if the CIA/Mounties, the people Zenia gave Billy to, were interested enough in her to "silence her" in regard to the capture of an American deserter, nearly twenty years after the fact. Again, her betrayal of Billy is the sordid trivia of stool pigeons diming a mark, not world-threatening spy stuff. Zenia's "exotisme" is not more real than her "sick aura" just because it's imagined by Tony rather than Charis. Objectively, one might say it's "less."
So I accept the coincidence of death and the balcony, consoling myself that perhaps what the men in suits meant, when they said she was "dead before she hit the water" was not literal; perhaps they meant that there was enough heroin in her when she hit the water, that nothing could have prevented it from killing her. Murder? Suicide? A stupid accident? We don't know. We can't know. And strangely enough, as much as we scratch at the itch of not knowing, it doesn't matter.
We know, once we settle down from our Miss Marple suspicions, that the people we care about did not do it. Knowing that, we can comfortably agree with Charis, that Zenia did not win. Charis, who tells us how important it is that we not become Zenia, and therefore, unless Atwood's mind is as poisonous as Zenia's, must not be the one who killed her. Comfortable in our agreement, even while we also uncomfortably agree with Tony, that we may not be utterly different from this dangerous, poisonous adversary to all that is good.
I am building a scattered essay on elements of The Robber Bride — scattered in the sense that they are not meant to be read in any order. Here is a map of the pieces (the grey one is where you are now):
Who Killed Zenia?
I have posted reviews of The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace. Upon publication of The Blind Assassin Atwood's publisher, Doubleday, put up a page for her which may still be available. The Random House "Reader's Companion" page for The Robber Bride has some useful interpretive materials, including a few Atwood poems and her address to the American Bookseller's Association the year the book was published.
She has her own website as well, the delightfully named Owtoad. Other good sites are The Atwood Society and Brittany Chenault's Atwood Links. I recently discovered a beautiful and comprehensive bibliography site, luminarium.org
If you like Margaret Atwood, you might like Louise Erdrich, a woman of Michif (Métis) heritage who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine in 1985. I have posted an annotated bibliography of her work and reviews of The Antelope Wife and her newest novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.