Few authors can write about the everyday merged with significant life events in such an erudite, engaging manner as Canadian Margaret Atwood.
Successful painter Elaine Risley, on returning to Toronto for the first time in many years to attend a major retrospective of her work, reflects on her post-war childhood. But this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The fact is that I hate this city. I’ve hated it so long I can hardly remember feeling any other way about it…. I live [now] in British Columbia, which is as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning.
Bitter memories crowd her thoughts as a peripatetic childhood travelling round Canada with her parents and brother comes to an end as the family move into a new Toronto suburb. Risley senior, an entomologist, has given up researching various bugs in their natural habitat and accepted a lecturing position.
New home, new school for the Risley kids. And Elaine suddenly discovers what’s defined as normal behaviour for a young suburban eight year-old girl. But a year of being best friends with Grace and Carol changes with the arrival of Cordelia.
The dynamics of the group shifts – in her innocence and lack of awareness of the ‘rules’, Elaine does not recognise the cruelty of the three. A psychological pattern of behaviour is established that is to profoundly affect her perceptions of relationships and her world. It is only years later that Elaine is able to come to terms with a level of understanding – and much of this understanding is achieved through her art. But even now, on her return to Toronto, Elaine still hopes (and partially needs) to see Cordelia and gain her approval – in spite of the fact it has been twenty/thirty or so years since the two ‘friends’ last met. “She wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends… I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.” But this mourning for her past – including contact with John, her first husband – wandering the changed city streets provides a level of closure.
Interestingly, for a story that revolves around the psychological bullying and mental abuse of a young girl, the unfolding of these events takes up a remarkably short part of Atwood’s novel. But it is the long-term impact that is explored. Years later, Elaine’s mother voices recognition of the cruelty of her friends, although she identifies Carol as the main perpetrator.
Cat’s Eye is a profoundly moving, exquisite character study, tender in the ebb and flow of its memories. Moderately happy, there is an air of melancholia around Elaine, although even she herself identifies that she is not always the victim. “It disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.”
Margaret Atwood’s seventh novel (it followed The Handmaid’s Tale), Cat’s Eye was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize but lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day.