Cat's Eye- Margaret Atwood 1988


I studied this book in school. Well, technically I didn't have to study it for school (I was the only person doing an English Literature AS level in my school, so I was supposed to only do half the texts, but ended up doing pretty much all of them just for fun. I know, I know.) Its funny actually, that most people end up hating the books they study at school whereas the majority of those I studied I've ended up really fond of. At the time of studying it, I had no idea of who Margaret Atwood was, or that the book caused some controversy at the time of its release. Atwood was accused of blowing wide open the concept of the sisterhood that feminism had been building its foundations on.

I loved it immediately. At least, as much as you can love such an uncomfortable read. The detail and colours in this book give it such a sense of truthfulness and realism that it left a deep impression on me. Just like the description of time as a pool of water, sentiments and lessons from it resurface in my mind on occasion. I've read and re-read it many, many times.

It tells the story of Elaine, a painter who revisits her childhood home of Toronto for a retrospective, and who is confronted by some vivid- and horrific- memories of her formative childhood years.  I don't mean a blood and guts sort of horrific, however- its much more creepily benign and subtle than that.

Having spent a childhood travelling, Elaine's family settle down in Toronto where she makes her first female friends. And from then on, the innocence of children (as perceived by adults) is blown wide open.

“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.”
What ensues is a campaign of sustained cruelty and torment, wrapped in the sugar coated exterior of friendship, and led primarily by the vividly painted Cordelia with the collusion of two other little girls and, more devastatingly, some adults. Children have an enormous, and often forgotten about, capacity for cruelty, and this is the most realistic portrayal of unrelenting bullying I have ever encountered. It also addresses the huge harm that religion can cause in failing to address and reinforcing the torment.

Having been a little girl myself many moons ago, the subtle terror of not fitting in resonates deeply with me. Even if you were lucky enough to avoid any bullying during school days, I'm guessing the threat of it probably lurked somewhere not too far away. I'd be interested to know what men think of this book and whether or not it resonates as much with them.

The characters, who could in less experienced hands end up empty caricatures or stereotypes, are so deeply portrayed that you almost feel you could reach out and touch them. Just as in real life, and the people you meet every day, none of them are one dimensional. Elaine's perception of them changes as she gets older, which is subtly written and reflective of a natural, albeit non-linear progression that comes with age.

Elaine continually refers to the colours and textures around her, as a painter would, and the imagery that runs through the book is striking. When I think of this book, it evokes a feeling, smell and taste of clinical cold- ice, gumballs, and the disinfectant smell of the stars.

I've suggested this book as the first one for the new book club for my neighbours. I'm not sure yet what they have thought about it, but I know one of my friends found the non-linear structure a little too confusing.

In the end, its a book which is difficult to pigeonhole. It seems to me to be very different to the other novels I have since read by Atwood. It's not overtly feminist, but there are certainly some hints of it, despite the controversy it caused. I sort of think it represents a more practical version of the militant feminist movement of the day- a feminism that acknowledges that men play an important part in the lives of women and who can be our most important allies. It  I would heartily recommend it to anyone. It might not be the most feel-good book you'll ever read, but it is an important one.


One Response to “Cat's Eye- Margaret Atwood 1988”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A blast from the past! I remember reading and enjoying this so, so long ago. Thank you for reminding me of it. I don't remember much detail of what actually happened in the book but I do remember a certain intensity. It wasn't recommended by anyone, I just picked it up when browsing in the public library.

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