1988, 498 p.
You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water.Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
Nothing has gone away for Elaine Risby, the main character and narrator of Atwood’s 1988 novel, Cat’s Eye. Returning as a fifty-year old artist to her childhood home of Toronto as the star of a retrospective of her work, memories return of her unhappiness amongst a small group of neighbourhood childhood ‘friends’. The experience has stayed with her, even though she shrugged free of their power and went on to establish herself as a notable painter. As she walks through the gallery retrospective of her painting – a legacy that she is well aware could be turned to cinders in seconds with a splash of fire accelerant and a match – we see from her descriptions of her paintings that she has been painting out the pain from this childhood experience for the rest of her life.
Elaine’s early years were unconventional as her peripatetic family followed her father, an entymologist, on his research field trips. Once she and her brother reached school age the family settled in suburban Toronto which, in these post-WWII years, was staid and judgmental. Although her parents did not attend church, Elaine did so with Grace Smeath, a neighbourhood friend. Her mother, whose unguarded comments revealed her hypocritical disdain for Elaine, appeared over and over in Elaine’s paintings for decades afterwards. The small friendship group was joined by Cordelia , a supercilious, controlling bully, who manipulated Elaine by spurning, then sporadically embracing, her as part of the ‘in’ group, the ultimate intermittent reinforcement (and punishment). Atwood captures well the small degradations and the petty cruelties that girls, in particular, seem to be able inflict on each other, seemingly invisible to parental observation. This isn’t completely true though, because Elaine’s mother was clearly aware of the bullying and Cordelia’s part in it, but obviously felt at a loss to know how to deal with it.
So, it came as somewhat of a shock when, suddenly emboldened, Elaine shrugged free of their influence and, paradoxically, began to bully Cordelia herself. I began to suspect that Elaine was an unreliable narrator, and that perhaps she was a bigger monster than Cordelia. But instead Atwood held this change in roles in an uneasy tension, although I don’t know that I’m completely convinced by the sudden switch in power in the relationship. Bullying is a complex phenomenon, though, with such paradoxical emotions and manoevres being played out, and our expectations of adult intervention have changed a lot in the last decade.
I suspect that much of this book is autobiographical, if not in its exploration of relationships, then in its depiction of post-war Toronto and the artistic life. Atwood handles switches in chronology deftly, as you’d expect a writer of her calibre to do. I read the book with an insistent sense of doom, expecting with each page-turn that Cordelia would re-emerge or that the bullying would suddenly reveal itself as a much darker, more insidious act. Atwood does well to hold her reader in this anxious state for so long- not that it’s a particularly pleasant place to be.