In front of me is the Pacific, which sends up sunset after sunset, for nothing; at my back are the improbable mountains, and beyond them an enormous barricade of land. Toronto lies behind it, at a great distance, burning in thought like Gomorrah. At which I dare not look. – From Cat’s Eye, page 418-
Elaine Risley, a painter, flees west to Vancouver from Toronto to escape her failed marriage and the deeply buried memories of childhood. Now facing middle age and the relentless passage of time, she returns to the city of her childhood for a retrospective of her art … and discovers her past.
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.
They work at acting like boys. They call each other by their last names, draw attention to any extra departures from cleanliness. “Hey, Robertson! Wipe off the snot!” “Who farted?” They punch one another on the arm, saying, “Got you!” “Got you back!” There always seem to be more of them in the room than there actually are. -From Cat’s Eye, page 111-
I know things about boys. I know what goes on in their heads, about girls and women, things they can’t admit to other boys, or to anyone. They’re fearful about their own bodies, shy about what they say, afraid of being laughed at. I know what kind of talk goes on among them as they horse around in the locker room, sneak cigarettes behind the field house. Stunned broad, dog, bag and bitch are words they apply to girls, as well as worse words. I don’t hold these words against them. I know these words are another version of pickled ox eyes, and snot eating, they’re prove-it words boys need to exchange, to show they are strong and not to be taken in. – From Cat’s Eye, page 261-
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.