Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

When I chose ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood for one of my book groups I had no idea that it would become a book that would cause such a reaction in me. I have mentioned a few times on Savidge Reads how sometimes reading a book can become and experience, you live it. Sometimes books can become more than that, they seem to become the subconscious focus of all your thoughts and they bring back emotions and feelings you thought you had long forgotten, and not always the most comfortable ones.

Before I talk about the effect that ‘Cat’s Eye’ has had on me, and the emotional reaction I had, I think that’s its best to set the scene and tell you more about the book itself. When Elaine Risley finds herself back in Toronto after many years, for a retrospective of her paintings and work in one of the galleries, she starts to look back to her childhood there. These are not the sweetest of nostalgic notions, in fact the more we learn about Elaine’s past and her friendship with a trio of girls the more we realise memory lane was a very painful road indeed.

After spending most of her time living a rather secluded life as her parents escape the big towns and cities during the Second World War, moving to Toronto is a whole new lifestyle and adjustment and one made harder by the fact that Elaine has never really felt like a girl (in fact discussing having her own two daughters she admits she wanted sons as she thought she would relate to them better) so when she befriends Grace and Carol it is with relief. That is until after a summer trip away a new girl has arrived in town called Cordelia, and from the moment she joins this group the dynamic changes and the line between friends and foes is no longer black and white.

I could talk more about where the story leads you, how it evokes the difference between the metropolitan and wild parts of Canada, how it looks at the countries history between WWII and the 1980’s and the changes for women in that period – these all linger in the background of ‘Cat’s Eye’ making it a multi-layered read and even more of a masterpiece in some ways. I think it would also give too much away and this is a book you need to go into a little blindly for it to really take hold. At heart though this is a tale of childhood bullying, much worse when done by friends, and how those actions and events can scar us far more than we ever know. It was this part of the book that really got to me and was for me what the book was all about.

“Cordelia and Grace and Carol take me to the deep hole in Cordelia’s backyard. I’m wearing a black dress and a cloak from the dress-up cupboard. I’m supposed to be Mary Queen of Scots, headless already. They pick me up by the underarms and feet and lower me into the hole. Then they arrange the boards over the top. The daylight air disappears, and there’s the sound of dirt hitting the boards, shovelful after shovelful. Inside the hole it’s dim and cold and damp and smells like toad burrows.
    Up above, outside, I can hear their voices, and then I can’t hear them. I lie there wondering when it will be time to come out. Nothing happens. When I was put into the hole I knew it was a game; now I know it is not one. I feel sadness, a sense of betrayal. Then I feel the darkness pressing down on me; then terror.”

From the initial little jibes and retorts, sometimes the smallest of incidents can be the most damaging, to larger more threatening events like burying Elaine in the garden as ‘a game’ (which was one of the most vivid moments of the first third of the book but not the worst that they do) Atwood makes the acts of bullying come to life in a way that really takes you back to your own childhood and those awkward moments where friends can be enemies and where someone must become the head of the gang.

I myself was bullied at school, I think most kids are at some point, so maybe that’s why this rang so true with me, but I simply couldn’t shake the feeling of it and it really, really got to me. To me, though rather uncomfortable, that is the sign of a wonderful book and a wonderful writer. Through Elaine’s often distant and removed narrative I was projecting my own experiences and emotions and it, along with Atwood’s creation of course, drove ‘Cat’s Eye’ and hit home. I can feel the emotions again just writing about the book, it’s the strangest and most emotive reading experience I have had in a long time, possibly ever.

If you haven’t read ‘Cat’s Eye’ then you really must. I have ummed and ahhed about whether this is my favourite Atwood so far, despite it disturbing me and my memories quite a lot because it was so powerful, and I think it’s too close to reading it to call. I need to let it stay and settle (or unsettle me) further. It is a book which certainly further proves what an amazing and eclectic author she is and certainly a book I have lived through and should be commended for its many layers, most of all for being one of the most insightful books into bullying and the scars it leaves behind I have ever read. A brilliantly uncomfortable read all in all and one I have found rather personally haunting. 10/10

This is a book I have had for years and years and meant to read… I think I might need to turn to these books more often than I have been doing.

As you can imagine this was a great book group choice with lots to discuss. Who else has read ‘Cat’s Eye’? I would be really interested to see if anyone else who has read it was left feeling like their childhood had been brought right back to the forefront of their brains and if it left them feeling breathless (or even dreaming about it as I did)? I wonder if it is as autobiographical as they say it is. Which other books have you read that hit an emotional part of you really hard or brought an uncomfortable part of your life to the fore?


Filed under Book Group, Books of 2011, Margaret Atwood, Review, Virago Books

30 responses to “Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

  1. I’ve added this to the wishlist, Simon, it sounds like a brilliant read. I’ve just finished Atwood’s The Robber Bride — have you read that one? It sounds almost similiar to Cat’s Eye, except the bullying happens to three middle-aged women by another woman friend.

    • It is incredible Kim. I actually cannot believe the way its gotten to me, though thats also in part down to the subject matter and my history of it too. So am hoping me raving wont over hype it for anyone.

      I started ‘The Robber Bride’ a few years ago and then popped it down and didnt go back. Maybe its time I should, I will wait for your review!

  2. I have read this, Simon, and did so at least 15 years ago. It was my first Atwood book and, I think, especially now that I’ve read your review, my favorite. It did evoke emotions in me, though not the same as yours, and it stirred me so and brought me deep into the war period. It is those books that stir something in us, make us a bit uncomfortable, angry, sad that leave the impressions. I’m glad you had a good discussion on it. We did Handmaid’s Tale many moons ago, which brought out many comments and discussion, though I think Cat’s Eye is a better.

    • It’s really interesting to see that it brought out very different emotions in you, and I mean interesting in a good way as it shows the book has several layers and angles that all readers could get something quite different and special from it. Now that is a sure sign of a good book isnt it?

      I do love Handmaid’s Tale too, it was my first Atwood so will always be special because of that.

  3. Erika W.

    I have skipped across from Dovegreyscribbles to say that I limit myself to reading 5 blogs consistently apart from dipping into many others and you have been in this group for a long time. Who’d have thought that I could find a young man, nearly 50 years younger I believe, so engrossing?

    All my best wishes to you.

    • Awww Erika thats a lovely comment, thank you very very much. I am doing well thanks, another hospital visit lined up tomorrow so been resting a bit but am doing ok.

      Thats another thing I love about blogging, as you mention it brings people from all over the world, all ages, all circumstances, sexes and cultures together and thats brilliant.

  4. Cat’s Eye is my favorite Atwood (The Robber Bride a close second). It’s been at least 5 years since I read it with my book club, but what a discussion we had!

    • It is a great discussion book isnt it Joann? I was a bit gutted it was a small group initially as I really wanted to hear everyones thoughts (I always do, not just when its my choice ha) on it. It was nice to be able to natter on about a book filled with so much.

  5. I read this years ago and really enjoyed reading it and yes it did fill me with all those horrid memories of childhood. The Handmaid’s Tale is still my favourite, my first too. I too gave up on The Robber Bride years ago but went back and read it last year and really enjoyed it.

    • I think there is sometimes something about the first book by an author you love that really stays with you. I have to say though the more I have thought about Cat’s Eye the more and more likely it is that it will become a firm favourite of mine over time… possibly even my favourite.

  6. EllenB

    I recently read Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea and it hit me like a ton of bricks. There was nothing in the narrative concerning Irish history that I did not already know in general, but O’Connor’s artistry made it feel very immediate. I am half Irish but the experience of the Irish during the 1840’s famine was never a big topic in my house when I was growing up. My Irish father was a reticent sort of person and my mother was not the Irish one, so these things were not discussed. Also since he was third generation removed from immigration he was typical of those who have moved past the horrors of the past and have moved on. Anyway, when I finished the book I was enraged. I couldn’t step away from it for weeks afterward. It felt so personal to me even though my life today is not really involved with any kind of Irish identification on my part except, of course, on St. Patrick’s Day when everyone in NYC is Irish. Then an extraordinary thing took place. I had been researching my Irish family on and off for several years but could not go back any further than the 1860’s long after they arrived in Canada from Ireland. If you don;t know where in Ireland your ancestors came from it is very difficult to find them. At any rate, I decided to take another shot at researching, Googled their last name and actually found the information I was seeking! What must it have been like for a poor Irish family with 6 children to get out of Ireland in 1849 the worst year of the Famine? Were did they get the money? The parents of the family died within a year of immigrating so they probably were half dead when they left. I am in awe, and it was all triggered by O”Connor.

    Sorry for babbling on and on. Super glad that you are doing well with your treatment.

    • I am doing ok thank you Ellen, on some new drugs which seem to make me happy one minute and miserable the next which is all very odd.

      Thanks for your thoughts on Star of the Sea and dont worry about babbling on, thats what Savidge Reads is made on… my babbles. I havent felt the urge to read Star of the Sea though everyone else says its excellent. Am I missing a trick?

  7. I also found this book to be incredibly powerful and disturbing. Possibly my favorite Atwood so far, too. I loved it.

  8. I read this not long after I left school, and I remember I did find it very disturbing and unsettling. It would be interesting to read it again now, with some (actually quite a lot) of distance from the rough and tumble of adolescence.

    • Sadly I cant imagine what it would have been like to read this at school, I might have hated it because it would have been too close to the bone. Paul Magrs, who is in the same book group, read it years ago and loved it but didnt so much second time years later which I found interesting.

  9. I absolutely adore Margaret Atwood and every book of hers I have read has that wonderful hint of the uncomfortable. There’s no doubt that the subject matter of The Handmaid’s Tale is uncomfortable full stop but I also thought that Alias Grace and The Blind Assasin had those disturbing elements to them that make the books all the richer.

    I’ve had Cat’s Eye on the TBR for a while now and you’ve now prompted me to bump it up!

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  11. i am embarrassed to admit that i have yet to read any Atwood. i intend to pick up The Handmaid’s Tale later this year, but will add this one to my list as well.

    i recently wrote a lengthy paper on bullying for a course i was taking, so i’m even more interested after reading your review. and i’m happy to hear that despite the memories, you were able to connect rather than disengage with the book.

    • Don’t be embarrased Lisa… just make sure you read some Atwood as soon as you can hee hee. I would have a whirl with The Handmaids Tale first. You will be hooked in I am sure.

      I think if I had read this book closer to the time I was bullied I would have loathed it because of the disengagement that you mention. I actually found it upsetting and it did bring up memories I wanted to forget, but that said it was an excellent book.

      • i ended up reading The Penelopiad as my first Atwood earlier this month and i really enjoyed it. i’m trying to get through The Blind Assassin now and it’s not grabbing me as much as i’d have liked, but it is beautiful writing, to be sure.

        i still do intend to pick up The Handmaids Tale and this one (after reading your review), since i’ve got lots of Atwood catching up to do!

  12. Brandy

    For me also, this was a book that I owned for quite sometime before reading it. I picked it up and decided to read it in the summer of 2009, after having read The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. I absolutely loved both of those. I have to agree that this book is an “experience!” I have not talked to anyone else who has read this book, and was so glad to find this site discussing it. It took me a while to get over this book. I don’t know that I was really what you would call bullied growing up, but for some reason this book brought back some feeling for me that I couldn’t and can’t explain, but for some reason I identify with it. I was just thinking about reading the book again. I think that this may be my favorite of Atwood’s books, but really liked The Robber Bride, too. Sometimes, even after two years, I will have a flashback to a certain part of this book. When I was reading it, I remember being completely enthralled with it. I just wish I could convince my friends to read it!

    • Thanks for your thoughts Brandy, sorry not to reply sooner. It seems you had a very similar experience to me and quite a few of the people at book group. Though it was divided, some of us completely felt we were in the bullying relationship, some felt very distanced by it.

      Its interesting that you mention The Robber Bride because I started that once and didnt get on with it so well and yet have been told by several people its like Cat’s Eye only when the women are older. Not the same women of course.

      • Brandy

        I had actually picked up The Robber Bride a couple of years before I actually read it. I had a really hard time getting into it as well, but when I tried a second time, I think b/c of the fact that I had read more of her books by then, and knew it had to be good if I just gave it a chance, I was really able to get into it. So sometime you should try it again. Once I got past that first part that was kind of slow, I couldn’t put it down. I have not read Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin. I tried once to read The Edible Woman, but wasn’t really able to get into it. Life Before Man is good, weird, but good, however, I thought the ending left something to be desired. I think I will probably try Alias Grace next.

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  16. As i am typing this, it is the eve of my finals’ English Exam and I must admit, having heard of the complexity of Cat’s Eye, I was rather skeptical and frankly, afraid of analysing the text in such detail.
    Atwood has crafted the novel with utmost perfection; every time you reread the novel, you find something new you’ve never noticed before, it’s always fresh, new and mind blowingly complex!
    Great post about the novel!

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