Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
I was deliberately looking for a bit of a change of pace after reading too much fantasy and what have you, so I decided to head back to the shores of the island of Margaret Atwood, to check out one of her non-fantasy novels. I think this is the fifth Atwood book I’ve read now, and as far as I can recall all of the previous four have had some sort of fantasy element: the various dystopian aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, and the story-within-a-story in The Blind Assassin.
Alright, so maybe Margaret Atwood isn’t the best person to read when you’re looking for just some straight realism, but that’s what Cat’s Eye delivers. Exception that proves the rule and all that.
Cat’s Eye is about an aging artist, Elaine Risley, as she reflects on her life in advance of a retrospective show of her art in her home(ish)town, Toronto. The majority of the book tracks Elaine’s formative years, framed from her perspective of reflecting on them as an old(ish) woman. It does eventually get onto her adult life, but I’d say it’s a book about childhood, more than a book about growing up. Even if it pushes on to Elaine’s life as a mother, it feels like this is very much there as a point of comparison to her childhood, and the effects of her childhood experiences on her life as a mother, rather than as an examination of motherhood in its own right.
The main thrust of the book is Elaine’s relationships with her small group of childhood friends, the effect of her somewhat odd upbringing on those relationships, and the effect of those relationships on her life.
Elaine starts out from a tough spot, as she spent her early life travelling around with her parents, by virtue of her dad being, in simple terms, a field researcher mainly interested in insects. That makes her a relatively unusual little girl by the time she settles down to a regular school in Toronto around age eight – her best (only) friend has been her older brother, she’s used to camping, scavenging for food, playing war in the mud and so on. She makes friends with Carol and Grace, two fairly typical girls from her school, who seem to regard her as a nice enough girl with some slightly weird gaps in her knowledge. They tease her, but it generally feels like its equal parts teasing and education.
That changes when a new friend joins the group, Cordelia, and the group’s treatment of Elaine moves from at least vaguely loving to outright bullying. Her friends stop being friends, and become antagonists, and it is actually pretty nasty to read. This isn’t The Wasp Factory: it isn’t that Cordelia, Carol and Grace do anything particularly horribly cruel to Elaine (with one exception). It’s more that the shift in the relationship and their treatment of her feels so very real and organic. It feels like it’s a story that is played out in friendships all over the place, and it’s sad to read how badly this affects Elaine, not just as a kid, but throughout her life. This plays out in her art, and her general patterns of thought – Cordelia, despite being a mainly destructive influence upon Elaine, remains the preeminent influence in her life, even after Cordelia is out of her life.
Atwood has said that Cat’s Eye isn’t really biographical (although it does have biographic details like both Elaine and Atwood’s dads being professional insect-fanciers), but I think to an extent it is: everyone has had a situation where a subtle shift in a group can turn friends against each other, particularly when you’re young. Although it isn’t generally anywhere near as extreme or with as long-lasting consequences as Elaine’s case, but it’s very relatable nonetheless.
The plot is decent enough, without ever being as spectacular as I’m come to expect from Margaret Atwood. It’s certainly more of a character-based plot than outright plotting when compared to her stuff like Oryx & Crake or The Blind Assassin (not that those didn’t have great characters – they did). I think my complaint with the plot is just that it suffers by comparison to her other work. The plot here doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s the characters that move on, but in her other work she’s combined that with an exciting plot.
As this is Margaret Atwood, it’s obviously beautifully written, particularly in Elaine’s thoughts when she’s grown up (“When the leaders were older than me I could believe in their wisdom, I could believe they had transcended rage and malice and the need to be loved. Now I know better.”; “I remember how wise I thought I was. But I was not wise then. Now I am wise.”). I’m not sure whether to actually give Atwood praise for Cat’s Eye being just a joy to read, because that’s basically the minimum expectation of any Atwood book. She could write the phone book and you’d expect it to be fun to read from a simple literary standpoint.
All in all, I enjoyed Cat’s Eye, but probably not to the extent that I was hoping to, and it’s definitely the least enjoyable of Atwood’s books that I’ve read. I’m probably not the target audience, given that it’s a book about the relationships of adolescent girls, the trials of a young mother, and the reflections of successful artist on her life, and I’m none of those things. Maybe it’s a testament to just how good a writer Atwood is that I enjoyed Cat’s Eye at all.
Of the books of hers that I’ve read, my order of preference would basically align perfectly with how sci-fi/dystopian they are (Oryx & Crake; Year of the Flood; Handmaid’s Tale; Blind Assassin; Cat’s Eye). As MaddAddam, the third in the Oryx & Crake series is slowly creeping into view, Cat’s Eye has done nothing to dissuade me from reading that, and in some ways its made me expect to enjoy it a hell of a lot: I know that it will be gorgeously written, and I’m pretty certain the plot will be more in my wheelhouse.
Read if you like: well, basically I’d recommend it if you are a girl or women, or would like to read a bit about girls or women. Or if you just like great writing.
Don’t read if you like: er… misogyny?
Next up: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher.