We all have that one author we can always go to when we do not know what to read, or when we need some quality comfort reading. For me, that author is Margaret Atwood. I fell in love with her novels when I found Alias Grace, and although I have had some trouble with some of her other works – such as The Robber Bride – she never disappoints.
I bought Cat’s Eye (1988) at my local bookshop a few months ago after a particularly bad morning at work. If there is anything that makes life beautiful, that is beautiful books, and I could not resist this paperback edition that only cost 10€. Then, when I included it on one of my Book Haul posts everyone told me that Cat’s Eye was a masterpiece. So, when my Christmas break started, I did not have second thoughts on which book to read.
Cat’s Eye tells the story of Elaine Risley, from her early childhood until her current middle-age life as a respected Canadian painter. This childhood is remarkably similar to Atwood’s, as the daughter of a forest entomologist who took his family with him on his research travels across Canada. It is certainly a point of departure from many other main characters, and the connection with Atwood’s own story makes Elaine’s much more precious, even suggesting some complicity between Atwood’s faithful readers, who would know about her early years. However, that nomadic life comes to an end when Elaine’s father is offered a lecturing position and they move to a developing suburb in Toronto. It is in this new home that Elaine meets Cordelia, the person who will model her life from that moment onwards. Neither very intelligent, nor very pretty, Cordelia manages to psychologically subject and torture Elaine for years. If you have been to school, you know what this means, even though you may have not been the victim, you have seen it. The power, the discourse, the behaviour, the incomparable cruelty of children against each other. And where does that come from? What makes Elaine a victim?
The story is told in the form of flashbacks from Elaine’s present – the 1980’s, back when the novel was published – although these flashbacks are chronologically organised, allowing the reader to easily slip into the novel’s main theme: the construction of identity. Atwood makes a great effort to show that both space and people play a key role in helping us become who we are. Or, rather, that the constant influence of different spaces and people shape our identity. However, my first reading of Cat’s Eye – I do think this is the kind of text that you have to revisit in every decade of your life – suggests a rather static identity, mainly influenced by events that took place in your childhood and early adulthood. For Elaine, Cordelia is the main constant of her identity related to the city of Toronto, and all the excerpts that take place in her present show her obsession for that childhood bully, turned friend, that shaped her school years.
However, the novel explores many other themes that I found very interesting, such as what it meant to be a woman artist during the Second Wave of feminism, the construction of motherhood, the ways in which patriarchy subjected Generation X’s mothers to a capitalist and domestic construction of femininity, and so on and so forth. I was especially delighted to read about Elaine’s turn to Christianism at the beginning of the novel as a way to blend in with her friends, and how her parents allowed her to try it, even though they did not attend church themselves. This allowed Elaine to explore what it meant to be middle-class in post-WWII Toronto, and it also introduced her in the imagery and symbolism of Christianity, which will be key in her later works of art.
Cat’s Eye is definitely the masterpiece you all told me it was. Even though Atwood has not commented on the similarities between her and Elaine, I think the novel makes a great job of re/presenting Atwood’s trajectory as a Canadian woman artist, but also as a woman who has seen two waves of feminism question and challenge what it means to be a woman, and an artist.