A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It is years since I read Cat’s Eye. It was the second Atwood novel I read, in the summer of 1999, between high school and university. Looking back, it was the most perfect time I could have chosen to read it, even though I couldn’t have known that then.
Elaine Risley is a painter who, at the age of 50, has returned to Toronto for the first time in many years to host a retrospective of her controversial work. Once there, she is utterly overwhelmed by memories of her childhood and the trio of what we might now call ‘frenemies’ who by turns loved and tormented her. The group’s ringleader, 9 year old Cordelia, “her best friend and tormentor,” proclaimed that Elaine was “not normal”, that she needed improvement, and Elaine – who has spent her life up to that point traveling with her family due to her father’s job – instinctively believed her. Here lies one of the novel’s themes: Elaine is unsure of other girls (and women in later life). She seems to think that she doesn’t know how they ‘work’, growing up as she did with just one brother. Here is this group of girls, who seem to embody what little girls ‘should’ be, and Elaine is desperate to fit in: ”They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.”
What starts as minor jibes and teasing gradually worsens until Cordelia and friends bury Elaine alive as part of a “game” and run away:
“Cordelia and Grace and Carol take me to the deep hole in Cordelia’s backyard. I’m wearing a black dress and a cloak from the dress-up cupboard. I’m supposed to be Mary Queen of Scots, headless already. They pick me up by the underarms and feet and lower me into the hole. Then they arrange the boards over the top. The daylight air disappears, and there’s the sound of dirt hitting the boards, shovelful after shovelful. Inside the hole it’s dim and cold and damp and smells like toad burrows.
Up above, outside, I can hear their voices, and then I can’t hear them. I lie there wondering when it will be time to come out. Nothing happens. When I was put into the hole I knew it was a game; now I know it is not one. I feel sadness, a sense of betrayal. Then I feel the darkness pressing down on me; then terror.”
It takes another, awful “punishment” for Elaine to finally harden against Cordelia and the others. Cordelia thinks Elaine is laughing at her, and so sends her out onto a frozen ravine to collect her hat, which Cordelia has thrown down there. The ice breaks, and Elaine almost freezes to death in the water. After her recovery, though, an element of that freeze remains in her distancing from her ‘friends’. Finally, she is free.
But as Elaine walks around Toronto 40 years later and the memories flood back, Elaine realises that Cordelia has been there all along, in her mind and ultimately in her work. The retrospective of her art becomes more than that; a retrospective of her childhood, her influences, and the damage wrought by the cruelty of three little girls.
I had one of those toxic friendships as a child. A girl – my Cordelia – was growing up in the shadow of an academically-gifted older sister, and, I now think, was looking for a way to be the older, more important one for a change. I was a year or so younger, and painfully shy. I was exactly what she needed. Now, she never buried me alive or sent me out onto unstable ice, but she did make fun of me with varying degrees of cruelty. She made fun of my parents. She made fun of my accent (I am Scottish but have the English accent of my parents). She made fun of my body shape and size. She listed all of the many, many ways she was better than me. I thought, as Elaine does in the novel, that that was just what friends did. It’s rather sad, when I think about it now, but in many ways I was scared of her, but at the same time scared of what would happen if I walked away from her. So I put up with it.
My moment of revelation came when I was in my final year of high school. She phoned one Saturday afternoon to ask if I wanted to go out that evening: “I thought I’d ask you because all of my friends are busy.” So what was I? I was instantly furious. And free.
The fact that I picked up Cat’s Eye just a few months later was coincidence. My wonderful English teacher had introduced me to Atwood in that last high school year by recommending I read The Handmaid’s Tale, which remains one of my very favourite books. It was serendipitous that at the time, my local W H Smith had a buy one, get one half price offer on Atwood novels, and so at random I selected this and Bluebeard’s Egg. I started with Cat’s Eye. It was a revelation.
I have now read nearly everything Margaret Atwood has published, but nothing has struck quite such a personal chord as this book did, 15 years ago.
Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye (London: Virago, 2009). ISBN 9781853811265, RRP £8.99