Reading Cat’s Eye, and Margaret Atwood’s biography at the back of it, it is hard not to wonder whether the book is partly autobiographical. There at least two striking parallels between Atwood and the protagonist of the book, Elaine Risley, who is also the first-person narrator. Both are daughters of forest entomologists and spend a good amount of their early childhood in the Canadian wilderness. As Elaine writes her final Grade Thirteen exams, “it comes to her, like a sudden epileptic fit” that she is going to be a painter. Atwood’s biography says that at sixteen she found that writing was “suddenly the only thing she wanted to do.”
Cat’s Eye is written almost entirely as a flashback, and even as flashbacks within flashbacks in some places, as Elaine Risley reviews her life. She is back in Toronto, the city she left in her twenties, for a retrospective of her paintings, an honour rarely bestowed on women painters. She recalls with great detail her early travels with her family to the northern parts of Canada, and her experiences at school and high school once the family settles in Toronto. Nearly two thirds of the book is about these years, the book runs through the later years rapidly. People say how the years fly by as you get older, and so it does in the book. Elaine talks about forgetting things from the past, things that we have read a hundred pages ago, and also about forgetting that she has forgotten. The book reminds us of something that adults often forget, that the life of a child is not simple or blurry, it is a complete universe, not lacking in dynamic relationships and the complex politics they create.
We find out that Elaine was acutely unhappy in Toronto, in large part because of her friends treating her unkindly, as girls sometimes do, and the inability of some adults to help, and the ability of other adults to encourage the unkindness. Elaine’s own parents are not religious, but a friend’s family introduces her to the Sunday church-going experience. This is described in strikingly clear-eyed fashion, even by Atwood’s usual high standards. The climax of the childhood experience is when Elaine ends up in a ravine on a snowy winter evening, and has a vision of Virgin Mary talking to her to guide her home. It is her friends who force her into the ravine, but it is also one of them who has introduced her to Virgin Mary.
The book leaves several questions unanswered, which is perhaps typical of life too. The main one is about Cordelia, chief among friends, the unkindest and, naturally, also the most interesting. As with Zenia, the aggresor-in-chief in Atwood’s The Robber Bride, we never really get an explanation of why she is the way she is. Neither do we know what becomes of her. Elaine is unable to help her in her later years in Toronto, and does not actively try to find her when she visits, neither does Cordelia magically show up at the retrospective, as Elaine secretly wishes for. Yet her shadow hangs over the whole book, alluring and mysterious, but somehow insubstantial. Elaine’s three major relationships and her career as a painter get described later on, and the deaths of her all her family, but the lasting impression is from the earlier parts. (Atwood’s decision to kill off the internationally well-known physicist brother at the hands of terrorists on a hijacked plane is puzzling to me, but I suppose it isn’t completely implausible.)
From this it may seem as if the book is without humour, but that isn’t the case. Humour appears as a quick chuckle or as a sharp observation rather than an extended belly-laugh, as is often the case with Atwood. Prejudiced church-goers get skewered, the feminist movement is described with energy and affection, views of gender that are the privilege of those with brothers are wittily presented and the childhood relationship with the brother is lovingly and hilariously explored. (Stephen writing out the solar system on the snow in urine is brilliant.) Indeed, if Atwood wanted to write a book about the brother, I would read it gladly. Though Elaine does not share much with or about him in later years, the warmest parts of the book are definitely her memories of him.
Since it is Atwood, it comes as no surprise that the prose is perfectly balanced — natural yet deliberate, light but controlled. As I flip through the pages again, it occurs to me that Atwood’s true control over the medium is most evident in her mastery of the short sentence, and the phrase as a sentence.
The book contains a lot of detail, about people, places, food, clothes. Atwood and Elaine create an entire world for us. And yet the emotional landscape is never fully revealed. Elaine never verbalizes her emotions to us, or at least not directly — not when her friends traumatize her, not when her family dies, not when she is in new relationships. Perhaps the way to understand this is how we remember our own past — the emotional memory gets dulled, along with the facts, and if this book is to be thought of as a memoir written by Elaine for herself, rather than for us, one can explain away the lack of emotional detail. This makes the book vaguely unsatisfactory for me, as if we have spent a lifetime with this person, and yet they cannot confide in us. In some ways this parallels Elaine’s unsatisfactory resolution of the past — though she forgives Cordelia in a certain sense, she cannot make sense of the past relationship, and since she fails to actually meet Cordelia again, there is no hope for a future one. This last is perhaps her lasting regret.