Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence, but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.
Cat's Eye, p118

Elaine Risley has returned to Toronto, the city of her birth, for the first retrospective of her artwork. As she wanders around present day Toronto she embarks on a parallel retrospective of her own, unleashing a flood of memories of her family, her first friends, her first lovers and her first steps in art. Elaine's narration moves fluidly between the Toronto of her present and the Toronto of her childhood, with this narrative structure serving as a reminder that the undercurrents of the past constantly move beneath the smooth surface of the present.

Most of Elaine's early childhood in the late 30s and early 40s was isolated but for her older brother Stephen and her loving but remote parents. Her family led a nomadic life, traveling around the forests of northern Canada to allow her entomologist father to conduct field research. This rootless existence restricted Elaine's ability to form friendships; the Risley family were never in one place long enough for friendships to bloom. From what she gleans from magazines and other snatched glimpses, little girls are as exotic as unicorns, with their dresses and ribbons and pink cheeks. They are far removed from her life of canvas tents, camping stoves, insects and lakes. She instinctively understands boys, as Stephen and his games and casual physicality teach her all she needs to know. When she's 8 her life is transformed as her father finally accepts a professorship at the University of Toronto. The Risleys move to the suburbs, furniture and the trappings of a middle class family life come out of storage and Elaine finally has her chance to make friends of her own age. Unfortunately, as she falls under the spell of Cordelia, her best friend and eventually chief tormentor, it's clear that Elaine is woefully unprepared for the manipulation, hypocrisy and bullying that soon becomes her daily reality.

Atwood captures the torment and complexity of childhood so well. The quote above leapt out at me, as it's a distinction many adult writers fail to make. The writing is nuanced, so that Cordelia and her associates are not starkly bad - they have parents and problems and motivations of their own. Elaine's parents and the other adults are kept to the peripheries, in the way that adults actually are for children, yet they emerge as distinct characters. Elaine's mother is particularly well drawn, with her slight bohemian air and ambivalence about the stay at home life of the typical mother and her struggle with knowing that Elaine is suffering but not knowing how to help her.

Best of all, Atwood skillfully shows how childhood traumas percolate through adulthood. Elaine may have been a victim as a child, but she goes onto form unhealthy relationships where she has a lot more power to hurt. She emerges into a successful artist, producing some of her best art from her childhood pain. There is no simple tale of the good girl versus the bullies, instead Atwood explores themes of female relationships, mother/daughter relationsips, male/female relationships, memory and the experience of aging.


verbivore said...

I've been slowly working my way through most of Atwood's novels but I haven't had the pleasure to read this one next. Thank you for the review, I'm looking forward to the chance to read it on my own.

Logophile said...

Verbivore, this novel has made me want to read more Atwood as you know I've not even read Handmaid's Tale! I've realised that since I consistently list her as one of my favourite writers I should really improve my knowledge!

Andi said...

Great review! I really have to get back to this one.

Sorry you couldn't add your review to the Year of Reading Dangerously site, but those Mr Linkys that allow us to keep track of the links for each month only let us do one month at a time. So, since we've already got one set up for the April book it won't allow anyone to add additional links to March without our upgrading to a paid account. Blarrg!

stefanie said...

It's been ages since I've read this book and you have reminded me why I liked it so much. I should pull it off the shelf again sometime for a re-read. I think it is one of her better books (not that Atwood could write a bad book, but you know what I mean)

Logophile said...

Andi, that Mr Linky thing is a real incentive to get April's up in time!

Stefanie, I know exactly what you mean! I also think this is one of Atwood's "better" books.

Sarah said...

I've been coveting a harcover edition of this at my local bookshop for some time. Your review is the excuse to buy it.

Of the Atwood I've read, I highly recommend The Handmaid's Tale and Moral Disorder.

Logophile said...

Sarah, thanks for the recommendations. I'm definitely adding them to my wishlist!

bookfraud said...

not only one of my favorite atwood books, one of my favorite books, period. a real work of genius.