It is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to the city of her youth for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman--but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories.
Cat's Eye immerses the reader into the murky psychological realms of memory, perception, identity and self-esteem and on how these aspects of our inner life are affected and mediated by and through our relationships with others. Specifically, it focuses on the formative relationships we make with our peers as children and the scars we may carry with us long after the cruel games of childhood are far behind us.
Not only a gifted writer and master of plot, Atwood is an extremely astute observer of humanity and all our foibles and predelictions. There is something revelatory in her description of everyday interactions and the evocation of the small details that fill the interstitial spaces of life. The portraits of all the main characters are deeply compelling, especially in the sections covering the period of Elaine's girlhood.
The story follows accomplished (and now middle-aged) artist Elaine Risley as she returns to Toronto, a city she abandoned many years earlier, to attend her first career retrospective. As is customary with narratives built around such reluctant homecomings, Elaine is forced to confront the ghosts of her Toronto past and the reasons she eventually fled to build a new life on the opposite coast.
Atwood's excellent tale uses this premise to explore the relatively occluded world of female bullying and peer pressure. In part what we are given is a forensic study into the (non-physical) tools of feminine violence, as acted out among young 'innocents' of primary school age. It is an eloquent exploration of the experience of being bullied from the perspective of a nine year old victim. The novel also explores how the teenager, then the young adult and finally the mature woman copes with and processes this legacy, a period of time that lies in her psyche like a lead weight. As the reader we experience this by accompanying Elaine during various stages of her life (and the different levels of psychological and emotional development attendant on these phases).
As a man I cannot confidently judge how well Atwood has captured the complicated friendships, hypocrisies, manipulations and power games between little girls and then teenage and adult women. But the picture she paints is persuasive and has the ring of authenticity. It certainly coheres with some of what I recall were my sister's experiences. And in terms of my own experiences of bullies and peer pressure as played out in the boys' corner of the playground, I am not completely unequiped to recognise the underlying gritty reality and universality of these portrayals. As a male reader I also feel that Atwood has given me one of the key things I look for in literature, which is an insight into an aspect of lived human experience that would otherwise be inaccessible to me.
'The past isn't quaint while you're in it. Only at a safe distance, later, when you can see it as décor, not as the shape your life's been squeezed into.'
The central pivot point for the whole narrative is Elaine's complicated relationship over the years with her by-turns friend, tormenter and acolyte, Cordelia; who in the end just occupies the space of a human shaped guilt-ridden memory. Cat's Eye, on one level about bullying, on another level is really about identity and the desperate, needy actions of two young girls negotiating the obstacles of growing up, wanting to belong, and trying to carve out a space for themselves in a hostile or merely indifferent world. By witnessing the dependencies and independencies that make up Elaine and Cordelia's relationship we learn that victims aren't always victims, the strong may actually be the weak and that while forgiveness may not always be forthcoming, sometimes understanding and even pity may be in the end (but probably only after it is too late). For Elaine, after all the heartache, frustration and anger has been exhausted - or maybe merely confronted and overcome - what she is left with is an empty regret and an overwhelming sense of potential robbed; of what should have become a mature friendship enriched by decades of companionship instead stolen by circumstance, selfish decisions and the vicissitudes of life. And then wonder why we held onto our pain for so long. Wonder why we let it have a disproportionate influence on our life.
In the end, Elaine discovers that friendship is important. No matter how independent and self-reliant we may become, how resilient, we still need these little alliances, these co-conspirators. Their absence can leave a gnawing gap in an otherwise full and happy life.
'But I began to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.'
What makes Atwood an excellent novelist is she is very easy to read while also very engaging in terms of story. She is adept at creating expectation and interest. With Cat's Eye I found it was no chore to consume a lot of pages in a single sitting. Atwood also has an excellent facility for plot and pacing. As a novelist she has a great sense for maintaining proportion between various story elements when developing the plot; something too many other authors get impatient with and therefore rush to the story's detriment.
In short, Atwood displays in this engaging book all of the skill and technique of an accomplished novelist and master of her craft who is not a dry practitioner but has a passion and need for storytelling.
Cat's Eye is about evil - about the harm that one person can do to another, and the deep psychological repercussions that result from that harm. Oh, and it's also about nine year old girls.
That's right, the evil in this story is a child. As anyone who was once a nine year old girl can tell you, girls are cruel. Adolescence is bad enough, but the ages of 8-12 can be worse. Subtle manipulation, humiliation, control - these are the tools of nine year old girls.
Atwood's heroine is Elaine, an aging artist who has returned to Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings. Elaine spent much of her youth living in Toronto, and has since escaped to Vancouver. Back in her old neighbourhood, Elaine starts to remember her past, and slowly unravels it for the reader.
Cordelia is Elaine's best friend - at least, Cordelia is supposed to be Elaine's best friend. However, along with two other girls, Grace and Carol, Cordelia torments poor nine year old Elaine, using those weapons whose usage generations of girls have perfected.
Elaine is a classic unreliable narrator. It becomes clear to the reader that she has repressed much of her past, and is only beginning to come to terms with her childhood. Interspersed with her memories are snippets of her present life - the showing of her work, an encounter with her ex-husband, and her constant preoccupation with seeing Cordelia. Over the course of the novel, the reader gets a full picture of Elaine's life, and her present character is eluminated by her past experiences.
As always, Atwood's attention to detail is extreme, and her skill at weaving together plot threads is unmatchable. Cat's Eye has a simplistic story - it is just a telling of a woman's life - but its examination of girlhood has a ring of truth. Teenagers who fill the roles of "Mean Girls" just might have been a Cordelia growing up - or an Elaine.
In the past, Elaine was at the mercy of what we, today, would call "frenemies": Ringleader Cordelia, and followers Grace and Carol. Elaine craved their acceptance, and was sorely taken advantage of, to the point of physical and emotional abuse. When one day the girls go too far in their torment, Elaine experiences an epiphany that will later shape her life and artwork.
The best thing about Atwood is how all her characters are developed. In Atwood novels, as in real life, there are no one-sided characters. We come to understand Cordelia a little better in her teen years, and see how Elaine is put into a position of power over her. This period of Elaine's life, too, works its way into lasting influence in the character's life and art.
This is one of my most favorite books, being extremely well written. A lot of emotion exudes from every page; women, in particular, may find that the girls' cruelty hits close to home.
Perhaps growing up as an outsider allowed me to connect on numerous levels with Atwood's main character. Perhaps thinking of myself as a writer (though not an author) allowed me to empathize more so than other readers might be able to. But anyone with haunting memories of childhood friendships will be able to relate in some way or another, and I believe most everyone has a childhood friend that lurks in the shadows of the consciousness.
While this might not be a fit for all readers, any woman who knows that her past has colored her present will appreciate it, in my opinion. Those women who have an artistic approach to life will appreciate it even more. If you know that life's bleak moments are as meaningful as the bright, and that the pale moments tend to stick with you longer than the florescent, you'll love it as much as I did.
It's a very quiet book - not that nothing happens, but they're the kinds of things that happen in ordinary lives. People are thrown together; people drift apart. Small joys touch us; larger tragedies do as well. But through all of it is Atwood's beautiful and engaging writing, and her statements of truth that sometimes sneak up on you just to connect with a thud. For me, the weakest part of the book was Elaine's time in her 20s, but it was more than made up for by the rest of the book. The parts about Elaine's early years particularly struck me, I assume because I recognized the feelings, if not the time period or specific events.
Recommended for: anyone who's ever had the uneasy feeling that they might not fit in with their friends, anyone who still smarts from remarks made years ago, people who know life is messy and complicated and sometimes hard to understand while you're living it.
Quote: "...I do of course have a real life. I sometimes have trouble believing in it, because it doesn't seem like the kind of life I could ever get away with, or deserve. This goes along with another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise."
Margaret Atwood has constructed a deeply moving novel which spans more than forty years and explores the pain of growing up, betrayal, family connectivity, and ultimately the human ability to forgive and move forward in an uncertain world.
Cat's Eye alternates between Elaine's present and her past, juxtaposing her childhood growing up in the 40's and 50's with who she has become in a changed society. The childhood images are the strongest of the novel, painful in their reality, yet often funny as well. Elaine and her brother Steven grow up as nomads of a sort - traveling eastern Canada with their father, an entomologist and professor, and their mother who does not fit with the convention of the 40's housewife. Elaine is more comfortable in the world of boys which include her brother and his friends, and becomes somewhat of a tomboy - ignorant of the politics of girl friendships. Atwood's description of boys is spot on and humorous.
Elaine's childhood friendship with three girls - Carol, Grace and Cordelia - is painful; stunning in detail and understanding of what it means to grow up awkward and wanting to fit in. As Elaine moves uncomfortably through high school and college, then through the feminist years of the 60s and into adulthood, the reader begins to understand the present day Elaine - her fears, her joys, her relationship with her parents and the men in her life. And finally, the baggage in the guise of Cordelia, who she has carried through the years and must now come to terms with.
As with all Atwood novels, Cat's Eye is a beautifully written story full of symbolism and rich language. I found myself immersed in Elaine's life - hurting when she hurt, despairing, wishing for resolution and understanding. The book has a melancholy feel throughout most of its nearly 500 pages, and yet by the time I had finished it I felt, like Elaine, there was light in the world...and closure.
This is a book to relish, to read slowly and spend time thinking about the images. It is a novel first and foremost about women's friendships, with all the barbs and uneasiness, as well as the longing and desire to form them. It is a book about the connections we make, about past wrongs and how to right them or, when that fails, to release them. It is about being human in an often brutal world.
Highly recommended; rated 4.5.
When I say strong, I'm not referring to the tone of voice or the strength of the characters themselves---though this may very well be true of them---I'm referring to the power of her narrative because the voice she writes in---this inner dialogue---is able to excavate marvellous truths with such clarity, originality, and precision.
Atwood is able to write with not only keen insight and provocative subject matter, she isn't afraid to offend you with jarring, raw imagery, language, or context. It's intentional in so far as she deliberately resists being conformed by stereotypical ideas or dogmas. What you expect to happen in novels, in how characters are meant to evolve, does not happen in the same way in Atwood's work. The rest comes from a well of either brutal honesty and truth on the part of the writer or the complete professional wizardry performed in the "magic" that Atwood creates with the written word -- or both, except there are no tricks with Atwood.
Magic denotes supernatural forces that flow out from nowhere, giving neither its master control nor credit. Atwood's artistry is magical in that she cannot be duplicated or outshone. But her manipulation of the language, her word power and passion for it, and story writing and "showing" -- not "telling" is accurately and expertly devised. It is without a doubt, mostly due to her natural, gifted, and crafted talent. And of course, her dedication to doing the work. (Trust me, she did not pay me to say these things, nor do I say them in a vain hope that she will give me her autograph after a two-day line-up at a book festival and acknowledge me as more than one of the literary cretins who hopes to one day step in her very large, very pointy, red shoes. Okay, well...maybe a little.)
And I think that's part of the reason why she's just as resented superficially on a global scale as she is worshipped -- the fact that she has been reigned as an iconic, Canadian, female writer and artist. The irony here, is that her ambition, drive, and self-confidence is what probably brought her to the iconic stratosphere, and no doubt, her natural talent as well -- but this exact kind of attention and glorification is what Atwood, I think, abhors -- and yet at the same time, on some atomic level, demands.
But this inner requirement is not her focal point -- it's not the driving force in her writing or why I think she writes. It's the natural talent that compels her. Writing, for any good writer---for any writer worthy of being acclaimed as having an ounce or more of talent---is driven by compulsion.
The words must come out. The story must be written down. There are no extravagant plans or blueprints. There is no trickery or shortcuts. There is only always, the writer, the compulsion, the muses, and the white page -- and then the actual act of writing.
A good writer need not have "good" muses or even "many" muses. A good writer need only a supersonic ear to listen to the muse he/she has chosen as well as the inner rhythm of language -- but most importantly, a "seeing" eye that understands something regular Joes also know, but cannot articulate. A good writer is a translator of universal truths. A good writer understands this instinctively. A good writer cannot be taught or bred. A good writer can only be born -- and then ruthlessly working in solitude for many hours and years to sharpen his or her 1) craft, 2) pencils, and 3) ego.
A bad writer can read many guidebooks, attend writing classes, and "feel" accomplished. A bad writer can even get published (Oh, man -- a lot of bad writers are published, which would explain the amount of bad reviews). Nevertheless, a bad writer will always be a bad writer. And it isn't a matter of opinion or even my opinion. It simply is an undeniable fact.
You cannot teach talent. You cannot imitate authenticity. You cannot counterfeit gold and expect to get your dollars' worth. A bad writer cannot impersonate good writing. You cannot be a fraud. You either have it or you don't. And if you do, then it's not a matter of luck or literary providence -- it's a matter of tenacity, 10-inch-thick skin, and of course, a great agent.
And Atwood is one of the privileged few who have "it" all. (Maybe not the 10-inch-thick skin -- writers usually don't, we simply pretend to. I suspect Atwood has had a lot of training.) But, give her credit, too. She's worked hard to climb the iconic ladder. Many writers are born with this elusive "it," but don't have the confidence or the stamina needed to create the work required to actually be recognized by both the literary community and by those outside of it.
And she's resisted the stereotype that writers -- that artists, especially female writers, require self-deprecation, dramatic illnesses (mental or physical), a man, or a manic disposition that inevitably leads to suicide or mysterious death. She's resisted this because she's alive -- and well. How about that?
So kudos to you, Atwood. Have another glass of red wine. You've heard it all before. Yes, so your stories and your characters are dark, sombre, and cynical. I've even heard from other people, that your work is "downright depressing." Damn right, it is! But it is also intelligent, poetic, stark, and dead-on. All the good words worthy of praise. All the praises for your good words.
Maybe you are, too: dark, sombre, cynical, downright depressed. But, maybe you are the one character you continually re-invent in order to shape shift into who you need to be depending on the weather or your mood (or who is critiquing or interviewing you). Maybe you re-invent yourself not only in your stories, but in order to cover your scent from public reviewers and critics, like myself, who hunt you down with pigeonholes. I get it -- I think.
Writing is the most vulnerable art available. There is no separating the divide between the writer and the work -- because there isn't one.
No, there isn't.
Not even when its said to be fiction. All good writers know that fiction---good fiction---is truth. Somewhere hidden behind commas, periods, and exhilarated exclamation points, it'll hammer you on the head. That is, if you can read. (Sorry, the literary snob is me just gave me a drop-kick.)
You either love Atwood's work or hate it. For some of you, you won't even tolerate trying to understand it. But there is no in-between, no grey area, no fence to sit on. Atwood makes you choose.
And she does so, in her novel, "Cat's Eye."
(I'd go into slight detail "about" the story, but that's what I believe inside flaps are for. Okay, okay...I'll give you a hint:
Go out, borrow or buy the book.
Borrow or buy all her books.
Be dazzled. Be star struck.
It is good but not near as good as Handmaid's tale but what i did notice that there is a lot to think about once you have read this book. There is a lot left in the air and once done it makes you wonder. I like that.
Margaret Atwood has said that she's actually quite happy in life, theorising that she writes less happy than she is because she feels as though there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy, and so in a way she is reflecting the wider reality. Perhaps, or perhaps it's just that uneventful coping and happiness, while lovely things to experience in life, would (for me at least) make a pretty bloomin' boring novel.
And I'm glad that she expresses the sadness, the confusion, the slow-burn of lifelong regret, guilt, anger and shame, and the fact that even being in one's 40s does NOT make one immune from the fallout of earlier pain, or less likely to experience it now. I'm not saying my entire life has been one bleak tunnel of despair (nor, indeed, is this book), but I would feel an awful freak if no artists/writers/singers talked about the kind of negative experiences I have been through and that are, to a lesser or perhaps simply a different degree, still part of my life today, just shy of my 42nd birthday.
There were so many little observations in this book that made me go "Oh. Yes. I understand. That's me, too." It made me feel slightly embarrassed (how presumptuous of me to think there could be ANY kind of connection between myself and Margaret Atwood!!) but also comfortable. If these feeling are genuinely Atwood's (and how could she describe them so pointedly, so accurately, if they never had been at some time in her life?) then I am comforted by a feeling that I am not alone in this universe with ambiguities in my past and personality that I find so difficult to forgive.
I only wish I was as observant, as capable as Atwood in figuring out WHY I feel certain things, but perhaps those parts of the novel are just her current best guesses anyway. And perhaps it's all pure fiction after all. Who knows but Atwood herself?
May I just impress upon any reader of my review that Cat's Eye is not non-stop misery. There is lovely imagery, there is affection, there are beautifully-observed characters, none of whom are necessarily entirely likeable or unlikeable -- they are just real. There are occasional wry chuckles, and even the odd giggle.
One of my favourite lines -- not really a laugh, but at my age it raised a knowing smile and acknowledgement: "This goes along with another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise."
It is a very sad book, to be honest. Elaine Risley, the Canadian painter who is the narrator of the book & the main character, never quite gets over the childhood bullying. She doesn't turn into a lifelong victim; rather, she turns into a sort of bully herself, pretty heartless at different times in her life. I found it- at times- hard to relate to the adult Elaine. But maybe it's easier to identify with a pure 'victim' (like the child Elaine was) than the much more complex, multifaceted victim / bully adult person who has emerged out of such a harrowing experience. This book teaches a lesson to all of us, one that we should try to hear, about the cruelties that children (who we often idealize) are capable of inflicting on each other.
(As a side note, and as another reviewer wrote, I too am grateful I have a boy! Girls just seem so much scarier...which is one of the main points in this novel, actually).
The other question the novel poses- and actually it's a question that Elaine herself has to deal with when preparing for her retrospective- is whether Margaret Atwood is a 'feminist author'. I think, in an essential way, she is. That is, she discusses very intelligently the life of women & girls. In this way, yes, she is a feminist author. But in a more black & white kind of way, one that would be recognizable by the vast majority of feminists, no she's not since she depicts the 'sisterhood' in a very dark, sinister way (that is though very true to life).
The novel has another very good point about it. It doesn't show Elaine triumphantly rise out of her tortuous childhhood into a mature, happy adulthood. Rather, her life is never quite happy. In fact, one thing that struck me is how distant she is (as an adult) from her parents & brother. I wonder why that was? They literally disperse in different directions once the children are adults & seem to meet very rarely. I wonder if that is something characteristic of American & Canadian life (not so common in Europe) or is it the particular family that is depicted to be distant from each other? Anyway, just something to think about...
Slow moving and introspective
I identified enough to want to strangle several characters along the way, but I never bought into the narrator enough to not want to strangle her. This, too, fits into the message of the book though. Times were different for girls then. The narrator's artistic creations were not about the "plight of women" but rather her own personal plight, and I found myself recognizing how successful feminism had been that I was unable to make that last leap of identification with the little girl, because I could, in reality, just keep looking at specimens and talking to boys. Like the narrator, to this day I don't understand most women. Fortunately for me, I don't have to. Atwood beautifully makes the message that real feminism doesn't come from the angry burning bras, but from untold girls just trying to grow up and "become themselves."