Can we as adults ever escape the influence of our most formative childhood experiences? That’s the question Margaret Atwood asks in her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye. Her protagonist is a middle-aged artist named Elaine Risley who returns to what was once her home town, Toronto, for a retrospective exhibition. Here, she confronts the spectre of her abusive, uneasy relationship with her childhood friend Cordelia, a bully who is nevertheless deeply vulnerable. During the course of the novel, we discover just how much Elaine’s relationship with Cordelia has affected her, making its way into her art and profoundly altering her self-conception.
Along the way, Atwood touches on questions of gender (or, actually, cis femininity as experienced in the global West), memory and artistic creation. The novel was a critical darling when it came out, shortlisted as it was for the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Awards, and remains a favourite. It’s easy to see why, with prose like this:
“Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever. It’s like the tide going out, revealing whatever’s been thrown away and sunk: broken bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, bones. This is the kind of thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future.”
Too, its concerns and approach are pretty typical of mainstream litfic, the kind of thing the Literary Establishment tends to reward: it’s a closely-observed psychological portrait of a middle-aged middle-class white Western woman that draws on established ideals about the primacy of childhood in human development, and presents the self as singular and coherent. All very bourgeois-realist, in fact.
That sounds dismissive; but it’s not particularly meant to be. Cat’s Eye is a great example of its genre: atmospheric, thoughtful, intelligent. Cordelia in particular is a really interesting character, and the push-and-pull between her and Elaine feels queasily immediate; Atwood captures the ambiguity, the contingency, of a certain type of childhood friendship in a way that’s rare to see in a literary landscape that generally likes to present children as innocent and contextless, naïve to the intricacies of power.
But I personally did not connect to the novel on any deeper level. For a couple of reasons, probably: Atwood’s treatment of gender is, as I’ve intimated, frustratingly binary and essentialist, in the manner of so much white feminist literary writing; and, for all that I am solidly middle-class, Elaine’s bourgeois anomie is not an affect I particularly relate to. Her outlook has very little to do with how I personally experience the world. Possibly at 28 I am still too young to appreciate the insights that come with middle age.
This is of course very much a your-mileage-may-vary situation: the novel’s Goodreads page attests to the existence of many people who have found reading Cat’s Eye to be a memorable, even revelatory experience. I’m just…not one of them.