All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

on August 23, 2010

Margaret Atwood is one of those authors that I’ve always ‘meant to’ get around to reading. I’ve read articles on her, or reviews on one book of hers or another and thought to myself ‘hmm, I must actually start buying/reading her books! They all sound so good’. Even though when I moved in with my fiancé, I discovered he actually owned about 5 or so already, I still somehow never dug them out of the depths of the cupboard. When I discovered that Trish from the awesome Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading? blog was doing to do a read-a-long at the Classic Reads Book Club of The Handmaid’s Tale, I knew I definitely had to participate. I went out and purchased a copy and to get into the spirit while I was waiting for the challenge to start, I decided to read another Atwood book. I chose Cat’s Eye at random.

The novel begins with middle-aged artist Elaine Risley coming home of sorts, to Toronto, a place where she spent a number of years growing up, to a retrospective showing of her work. She doesn’t seem at all happy to be returning to the city of her childhood home and as the book unfolds, we delve back into Elaine’s childhood and her teenage years through her memories, most of which centre around a girl she grew up with named Cordelia.

{{this will contain SPOILERS and TMI about me}}

Elaine was the daughter of an entomologist and spent much of her early life on the road as her father undertook field work and research. She describes spending many hours in the car, sleeping in tents, in log cabins, on stretchers and in sleeping bags. She is probably about 7 or 8 when her father buys a house and they settle down so that she and her older brother can attend school. She makes a friend or two and everything goes well for her until the first summer, when she and her family hit the road again for her father’s work. When they return, Elaine finds that there is a newcomer to the group, a girl named Cordelia.

I think the reason this book struck a chord with me, particularly now, is that bullying is such a hot issue here at the moment. It’s been in the news so much the past couple of years and it seems like with every new graduating class, there is a whole new level or torment and torture and some real tragic things have happened recently, including a spate of teenage suicides, all related to bullying in the past year. I graduated high school in 1999, which was, in Australia, primarily before the age of everyone having internet and computers at home and before the new phenomenon of ‘cyber bullying’. But even though there are more ways in this day and age, modern times didn’t invent this sort of behaviour and this book is stunning in it’s revelation of just how incredibly cruel children can be, even children as young as they are in this novel.

Take a survey and you’ll probably find that anyone who is entirely honest will admit to both having being bullied and bullied others at some stage in their lives. I know I certainly not only went through some tough times at high school at the hands of my peers, but probably contributed to the tough times of others through backing up friends and reacting to things that were probably better left alone. It’s the way of schoolkids – they form packs, they travel in packs. I know that when I was in school, if someone wronged one of my friends, they somehow wronged us all and it became a fight that included all of us. However I went to a very small primary school (which here in Australia is from when you are 5-11) and I can’t really recall anything in the way of bullying. Occasionally people had fights, because everybody does. But there were no real ganging up on people, tormenting one person, nothing like that and definitely nothing physical. That for me, was a totally foreign thing until I moved to a much bigger town and began attending a larger high school. And it was a definite shock.

What Elaine goes through at ages of 8 and 9 is really quite breathtaking, because it’s not a person doing this that she knows is hostile. It’s not a person that she can dismiss as meaning nothing to her, as being unimportant in her life. It is something that she thinks is her friend.  Someone that by rights, is supposed to care about her and be kind to her. And at that young age and with her naivety, she genuinely thinks they are doing what they are doing in order to better her, to make her a better person, a better friend to them. Cordelia, with the nuances of an adult, shakes her head in disapproval, tuts, questions Elaine about her actions, about what she did or didn’t do, what she should have or shouldn’t have done, and then doles out punishment, all in the name of improving her. It works on a You have disappointed me mentality, where Elaine tries desperately, desperately, desperately to do and say the right things and not disappoint Cordelia. The trouble is, what disappoints Cordelia changes from day to day. It’s a brilliant psychological mind control that disturbs Elaine so much that she begins self-harming. Not cutting herself with razorblades or knives, or anything like that, but peeling off her own skin. She chooses her feet, always covered by stockings and shoes, and peels off layers of skin with her own fingers. What’s worse is that Elaine’s mother can see what is happening, can see that her daughter is unhappy and at times, tries to avoid going out to play with Cordelia and the two other girls (and of course, avoiding Cordelia also disappoints her, as Elaine is her friend and shouldn’t do things like that) but she is powerless to help Elaine, or to stop the bullying. At one stage she asks Elaine if she’d like her to ring the parents of the other girls and talk to them about what is happening and Elaine is baffled. Why would her mother do that? Those girls are her friends.

Finally, the three girls, Cordelia and the two others, cross the line in an act that could have very easily lead to Elaine’s death, where they leave her helpless in the snow and then deliberately lie to her mother about where she is. This it seems, finally gets through to Elaine and she takes back the power, refusing to do what they want to do, and refusing to go out and play with them. Because they no longer have power over her, the torment ceases and within a few years the girls have all gone their separate ways, moving away, attending different schools. Elaine goes to high school and then her mother gets a phone call from Cordelia’s mother that Cordelia is back from her private school and will be attending Elaine’s school, and would Elaine walk with her?

Elaine and Cordelia become friends of sorts, although the bullying is pretty much never mentioned by both parties and this time, it’s Elaine who has some measure of power over Cordelia and does wield it occasionally with what she calls her ‘mean mouth’. I can understand why Elaine allows her back into her life – I myself had a very rocky friendship with a girl in high school. When we were friends, we were best friends, but when she was in a mood to pick a fight, it would make me want to stay at home from school and avoid her until she was over it. She would tell other friends I had said things about them behind their backs, lie about me trying to steal her boyfriend, ridicule just about everything about me. And then she would stop and I would just be happy that things weren’t hostile anymore. Finally in year 12, she went too far and got mad at 2 of us at the same time and myself and the other girl actually talked about the way she acted and discovered that she was lying about all of us, and telling other girls in our circle of friends that we had said certain things when we hadn’t. So we tossed her out of our group and I didn’t speak to her for nearly 10 years. She added me on facebook a couple of years ago and although I speak to her about vague things, I don’t take any steps to resurrect the friendship even though we’re both nearly 30 and adults.

Elaine’s experiences as a child with her ‘friends’ definitely shaped the way she formed relationships in the future. She finds it hard to bond with women, to empathize with them and to understand them. She seems to have no friends through college and into her adulthood. She doesn’t seek to confide in other women, she doesn’t seek their company and does state herself to prefer the company of men much more than that of women. Her relationship choices are also shaped by her childhood. As she matures into an adult, into a mother, into an artist, she is never quite able to let go and forget about Cordelia. When she returns to Toronto for the retrospective, she sees her everywhere, in the street, thinks about her constantly. She expects to see her at the retrospective, is so sure that she will be there.

Elaine’s early childhood, traveling with her parents and her brother, made her ill equipped to deal with young girls. Boys are an entirely different breed to girls and she had no clue how to negotiate the intricacies of a friendship with other girls. She was taken advantage of because she was behind in the game and because she didn’t know that take the power away and the bully has nothing left. She accepted it and tried her best to do what they wanted, be what they wanted and didn’t realise that in doing that she ensured that the bullying would never stop until she gained the strength to stop her own actions.

This was a brilliant introduction to Margaret Atwood. I enjoyed the way this book was written, the jumps back and forth in time were always smooth and never confusing. Atwood portrays perfectly the relationships between the characters: she nails Elaine’s naturalness around boys and her confusion and awkwardness around other girls. The descriptions are vivid (later on in particular, the descriptions of Elaine’s artworks) and engaging. It’s a lengthy novel, clocking it at over 400 pages, and I’ve read a few reviews which claimed it was too long but I never particularly found this myself. Time flew when I was reading and I enjoyed every page. I will be devouring the rest of our Atwood collection pretty soon I think.


(Book #54 of my 75 Book Challenge)

This book counts towards my 2010 Global Challenge

The Medium Challenge
Read two novels from each of these continents in the course of 2010:
Africa: #1: A Change In Altitude, by Anita Shreve. Set in Kenya
Asia: #1: The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani. Set in Persia/Iran
Australasia: #1: Vodka Doesn’t Freeze, by Leah Giarratano. Set in Sydney, Australia.
Europe: #1: Cold Granite, by Stuart MacBride. Set in Aberdeen, Scotland.
North America (incl Central America): #1 Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Set in Toronto, Canada.
South America
Try to find novels from twelve different countries or states.

5 responses to “Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

  1. It is interesting to read your thoughts on Cat’s Eye. I might give it a read. I tried to read the Handmaid’s Tale but couldn’t get into it, and was hired in a bookstore in Canada on the basis that I was not an Atwood fan (go figure!). I did read ‘The Robber Bride’ and found that to be far more accessible

  2. I’m just about to start The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve heard it’s pretty out there! I think Cat’s Eye is pretty readable, although it is lengthy. You’ll have to let me know how you go if you ever do pick it up!

  3. I am doing the read-along as well and am freaked out about just the first 75 pages we had to read so far!! Freaky!! And this is my first Atwood novel, so I am kicking myself that I’ve never read her work before!!

  4. Yeah, I was kind of like that too! We have a half dozen or so just sitting around but it took this read-a-long to get me to pick one up! And having now read 1 and a bit, I’m so annoyed with myself for not doing it earlier!

  5. Margaret Atwood is an amazing writer, and she’s got two very distinct styles of her own. The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, and its sequel are speculative fiction, and if you don’t like the fantasy thing, those books can seem unreadable. But she also does these totally reality-based novels about women, and they’re always heartbreakingly wonderful–my favorite of which is The Blind Assassin, followed by Moral Disorder. Lady Oracle is good, but since you’ve read Cat’s Eye it will probably feel like a bit of the same. Surfacing is on the weirder side but still worth checking out. And the rest, I’m still checking out myself.

    Also, thanks for pointing me to the Classics Reads Book Club! (Like I needed another…)

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