Author: Margaret Atwood
Year Published: 1989
Genre: General and literary fiction, Contemporary drama
Elaine Risley returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings. As she navigates her way through the city, she ruminates on her past – from her carefree childhood and tortuous experiences at school through to her adult life as an artist. Cat’s Eye is the sort of story where it’s less about what happens next and more about immersing yourself into the memories of the narrator, experiencing, for a while, life through the eyes of another.
Elaine’s early childhood evokes both joy and melancholy. It’s an almost idyllic time, where the Risley family travel around WWII-era Canada and most of Elaine’s time is spent running and playing in the woods with her brother Stephen. However, there is a pall over the whole proceedings, for we know it won’t last.
Elaine’s troubles begin when the family settle in Toronto. Introduced to the world of little girls, she finds herself partaking in their rituals and eventually becomes a victim of bullying. The author captures very well that particular brand of nastiness that can come from young girls, which makes this portion of the book especially painful to read. It’s realistic, distressing, and potentially triggering for those who have undergone similar experiences in real life. Worse, Elaine thinks of her tormentors as her friends. She notes that
“[h]atred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.”
The cruelty of children – and, as we later discover, of adults – is something against which Elaine is powerless. We want to save her, but as readers, we’re as impotent as she is. It makes you wonder: what would you do if your child were in this situation? The only consolation is that with Elaine as a present-day narrator, we know her suffering, at least, has an end.
When Elaine enters adulthood she takes control of her life. A consequence of this is that the book becomes much less stressful to read. At the same time however, I found myself losing sympathy for Elaine. While she does things, the reasons behind her actions are sometimes not explored; it’s as if a veil has suddenly been drawn between her and the reader. Elaine the adult is strangely passive; her affair with her professor, for example, is something that sort of happens to her, rather than a relationship in which she actively participates. I also didn’t really get a sense of why she becomes an artist and nor did I “feel” her art. Her surreal paintings, though obviously related to her past, are never explained directly. I can understand why she paints Mrs Smeath, for example, but I would’ve liked to know how she made the more particular artistic choices, like why she chose to paint Mrs Smeath in various states of undress, why she chose to paint her former lovers nude, why she painted those lovers with a woman (herself?) bearing a glass sphere head, and so on. It’s not that these things have to be explained – and some may prefer that they aren’t – but the deliberate opacity between art and artist is something I found frustrating given how deeply Elaine’s experiences are previously described.
Elaine’s relationship with the sexes is an important aspect of the book. To put things simply, Elaine sees boys as her “secret allies” and prefers the company of men. Her childhood goes some way to explaining why she doesn’t like other women and it’s easy to understand her callousness towards Cordelia as an adult – yes it’s mean, but it’s also human. What’s annoying though is the fact that Elaine – well into adulthood – seems aware of her prejudices, yet continues to lump all women into various categories of “other”.
|Pictured: Elaine Risley|
The strangest part of this is how she joins those meetings of female artists. It’s hard to fathom. If she dislikes women and finds it so hard to relate to them, why join at all? It’s unclear whether she’s trying to be part of the “sisterhood” or whether she’s there to promote her art or whether it’s something else entirely. When we’re introduced to the group, Elaine is already there, telling us what she thinks of the others. There’s nothing about why she’s there in the first place. Again, I found this lack of information – this lack of why – frustrating rather than pleasantly intriguing.
I can’t help but see the whole situation around Elaine’s retrospective as reflective of Margaret Atwood’s own experience as a poster child for feminism. Elaine rails against a journalist’s attempts to elicit some sort of feminist interpretation of her paintings, but in the end, accepts that other people will impose their own meanings on things, appropriating her art to their own ends. It’s an interesting critique and as valid as it is, in this particular case I feel as if Elaine’s irritation is largely self-inflicted – she pretty much lets these misunderstandings happen (those arty farty painting titles don’t exactly help), then complains about being misunderstood.
Cat’s Eye isn’t exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s worth reading. The book is achingly tender and at times outright painful. If you’ve had an “ordinary” life of first world problems, you’ll probably find something here to remind you of your own childhood – anything from the sort of bullying described to schoolyard games of marbles to the collecting of silver cigarette papers (for the purpose of making some future amazing thing). There is a haunting, nostalgic quality to the narrative, especially when it comes to descriptions of Elaine’s family. The novel is beautifully written and vividly detailed, with narration so eloquent that it seems a pity Elaine’s not a writer. Whether or not you like Elaine, whether or not you agree with her actions, it’s hard not to be touched by her experiences. Cat’s Eye is the sort of book that reaches into your chest and squeezes. Recommended.
Alex’s Rating: 4/5