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Susan’s Bookshelves: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

I read it when it was first published in 1988. For a long time after The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which is a masterpiece, I read each Atwood title as it appeared – although, apart from The Handmaid’s Tale in general I prefer her “real life” work to her dystopian titles.

Cat’s Eye is narrated by Elaine Risley, a successful painter, who has returned to her native Toronto after many years elsewhere, for a retrospective exhibition of her work. And it triggers memories.

Atwood does fractured time narrative impeccably well and we shift back and forth between  Elaine’s remembered childhood and her apparently happy but inwardly bemused  life in the present.

At elementary school she was badly bullied by three other girls which has left her with life long feelings of inadequacy. Cordelia in particular treated her so appallingly that for many years Elaine blocked it out completely until the memories come flooding back when she finds her beloved cat’s eye marble in her mother’s house while clearing it decades later.

In adult life she is haunted by images of Cordelia who, it transpires, was probably far more unhappy than Elaine. She hopes, knowing at another level that it won’t happen, that Cordelia will turn up at her exhibition. She wants to ask her why she behaved as she did and to find what a counsellor would probably call “closure”.

The writing is warmly compelling – this is Margaret Atwood, after all. Elaine isn’t simply unhappy. Her memories are mixed.  She and her brother are taken each summer by her parents to camp in the north for the whole season. Her father, like Atwood’s own, is an entomologist needing to do field work  during the long university vacation. Unsurprisingly there is a ring of real authenticity here. This is a world Atwood knows well. And Elaine is relatively happy at these times.

The novel is effectively a nuanced study of how memory works especially when there are very painful experiences in the past. It is also a moving, poignant exploration of how far it is true that child is mother of the woman, as Wordsworth didn’t quite say.

And my goodness, Atwood’s powers of description are razor-sharp. One day it snows on the way home from school: “Big soft caressing flakes fall onto our skin like cold moths; the air fills with feathers”. She describes a group of street statues as “coppery-green with black smears running down them like metal blood”.

I read it a second time a couple of years after it was published and then had to study it in detail in the 1990s because it became an A level set text on the syllabus I was teaching. There is nothing like teaching/sharing a text to sharpen one’s appreciation of it. Coming back to it now after, maybe, twenty five years, I still find it a page turner and I still marvel at Atwood’s facility with words and her ability to conjure up situations which are so ordinary you could reach out and touch them. But her gift is to spin them  wittily like an intricate spider’s web.  Yet again, I struggled to put the book down

Someone wrote on Twitter recently, that he never re-reads books and asks if he should be ashamed. Well of course it’s not a matter of shame. We can all choose what to read and how many times. Every reader, obviously, reads in his or her own way too. For myself I find rereading a huge source of pleasure because some books – and Cat’s Eye is a good example – get better each time.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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