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?