Cat’s Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman—but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories.
Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, Cat’s Eye is a breathtaking novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life.
Margaret Atwood charts the psychological process of memory as compulsion and memory as a healing act through the character of Elaine Risley, an artist who returns to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. Elaine’s visit triggers thoughts of her childhood with all the urgency of a bad rash. Dominating her reflections are her childhood “friends”, three girls who wreak havoc on Elaine’s self-esteem. Having spent her early childhood on the road with an entomologist father, a less than traditional mother and a brother more concerned with snot and snakes than the intricate behaviour codes of girls, the young Elaine is vulnerable to the indirect aggression of Cordelia, the ringleader of the group who seeks to improve her. Through Elaine’s experiences, Margaret Atwood turns a keen and ironic eye on the training of females in North American culture: “All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying pans out of the Eaton’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say I’ve done it badly.” The self-effacement of these girl-children barely masks a need for power that erupts all too often in cruel forms of play. This is a story in which the lines between victims and oppressors blur, in which forgiveness becomes an act of gaining power. Through humour, pain and insight, she makes us see, with surprise and recognition, details from childhood we may well have forgotten. —Chris Kellett, From 500 Great Books by Women