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.