Cat’s Eye did not win a Booker prize even though it was short-listed in the 1989 competition. She would then win the 2000 Booker Prize with The Blind Assassin rounding out her plate with a second shortlist in 2003 with Oryx and Crake. So Atwood has some Booker Prize credit. And Cat`s Eye might just be my favorite novel of hers. And that`s saying a lot because I do not have a very high opinion of her work. She tends to evoke a typically Canadian reaction in me where I begrudge her her success and then savage her books as a result. I also think she is a better poet than a novelist, but these are solely my opinions. Atwood is a global author and a phenomenon unto herself. Without her trail-blazing, Canadian Literature would struggle to be on the map (this is a very speculative claim).
Cat’s Eye is a kunstlerroman with Elaine Risley at the centre of the novel. She is the child of a biologist parents and spends her early years in the forests of northern Ontario. She moves with her family to Toronto in the 1930s when her father takes a position in the Zoology department at the University of Toronto. Here she meets other girls for the first time and is initiated into their confusing and cruel ways. Cordelia, named after the King Lear character, comes from a wealthy family and takes great pleasure in leading Carol and Grace in several years’ worth of bullying and intimidation. The problem is Elaine craves their approval and so is caught in a vicious cycle of blaming herself and then feeling guilty for doing so. In the novel’s present, Elaine is now an accomplished painter returning to Toronto from Vancouver for her first retrospective exhibition. From this frame narrative, she travels back to her past and ruminates on her growth from a woodsy girl into an accomplished artist. Cordelia is also at the heart of the narrative as Elaine hopes to find her after many years of no contact while she is in Toronto. Elaine is haunted by her last meeting with Cordelia, who became a close friend in high school after Elaine walked away from her bullying. So the novel is also about time and memory. Atwood frames it this way with quotes from Stephen Hawking on time and opening with a reflection on time as space. This theme comes up again and again throughout to good effect as Elaine is haunted by her past, especially the years of bullying, and cannot come to grips with it. Okay, so that’s a lot of plot summary. Apologies, I think I’m still trying to sort through this complex plot.
What I think Atwood does really well here is evoke Toronto before World War II, back when it was Toronto the Good, and the more sleek and modern Toronto that replaces it. There is a fair bit of nostalgia for this old Toronto even if Elaine clearly sees the fault after many years away. I also think that Atwood has written a convincing and fulsome account of a central character’s life from childhood into adulthood. This is no mean feat and I enjoyed coming to know Elaine’s character even if she is somewhat prickly around the edges. What I think doesn’t work for me is the way that painting becomes a central trope in the novel. The problem with having a protagonist who is a painter, or any artist or poet for that matter, is that the author must describe their work in some way. I found myself uninterested in Elaine’s paintings and I sensed that Atwood herself struggled to describe a painting. This is partly because a painting is a painting, not a paragraph of prose. Something is lost in translation from visual to text, and I did not enjoy this aspect of Cat’s Eye.
So, Cat’s Eye is probably my favorite Atwood novel, even one that I would consider reading again in a few years time. A year or two ago I would not have thought this was possible, but Atwood is growing on me … just a little.
I would recommend this book to fans of Atwood, CanLit, or people who live in and love Toronto.
Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1988. Print.