Book: Cat’s Eye
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 1988 by McClelland and Stewart, 420 pages
Date Read: Originally, 1993 (with repeated readings afterward)
First Lines: ”Time is not a line, but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space, you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light, you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.”
Genre/Rating: Literary fiction; 5/5 little lost girls sinking under the ice
Bookslut who hearts this book: Amy
Review: There are very few books that completely understand what little girls can do to one another’s psyches. There are plenty of books that try, and there are plenty of books that come close. Cat’s Eye not only nails it, it brings you back there; it throws you right into the action. You live among the girls. You become one of the girls. You bleed and cry and scream with the girls. You long to escape, and yet you long to stay, with each page you turn.
I learned about Atwood my freshman year of college, not as a novelist, but a poet. I fell in love with her after reading this poem, which remains, even after almost a lifetime of studying poetry, one of the most beautiful and unexpected and true poems I’ve ever encountered (and one of the first poems that taught me brevity can be perfection):
You Fit Into Me
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
The summer after my freshman year, bored, constricted after a year of freedom to be back under my parents’ rule, I raided the library and brought home everything I could think of. Although most people know Atwood more for The Handmaid’s Tale – and yes, I love that book as well, as I do everything she writes, I actually did a graduate finale project on The Handmaid’s Tale, so I of course don’t mean to slight it – one of the books I brought home that summer was Cat’s Eye. I spent two solid days glued to the book. I remember audibly saying “YES.” I remember saying “NO.” I remember a wordless, pained exclamation near the end. It was a book about my childhood. It was like Atwood had been watching me, and knew what I’d lived, and understood, and wrote it for me.
Cat’s Eye centers around Elaine, who we see mature from a young girl in World War II-era Canada to a middle-aged woman in the 80s. Elaine’s life has been colored – in some places, scribbled upon, obliterated, wrecked – by her friend Cordelia. When this book was written, we didn’t have the terms “mean girls ” or “frenemies.” Not yet. Atwood pre-dated these terms, and understood them more innately. Cordelia is these things, and yet she’s more. She molds young Elaine into what she wants her to be, then systematically breaks her down, just to build her back up. The book is structured in flashbacks, with adult Elaine, a well-respected artist, one whose life has been forever tinted (pun most definitely intended) by her formative years spent under Cordelia’s cruel wing, remembering Cordelia, from youth to college-age, and how their lives become almost fatally and co-dependently intertwined.
You also get to know the other figures in Elaine’s life: her scientist father; her mother, stronger than she seems at first glance; her brilliant, scattered brother; the other girls in Cordelia’s orbit; and the adults who attempt to save Elaine from Cordelia’s iron grip, all of whom play a larger role in Elaine’s life than she realizes at the time.
Cat’s Eye is a painful read, but a joyous, triumphant one, as well. You bleed for Elaine, especially if you’ve either been through the torture of the million small bloody cruelties girls are capable of, or love someone who has. But there are small triumphs, along the way, that give you hope. And there is beauty. And so much poetry. One of the things that I love about Atwood’s work is that each of her novels reads, to me, like a book-length poem. She can’t keep poetry out of her work. I like to imagine if you met her in person, poetry would float around her in an aura.
It’s a beautiful book, and a painful one, and, most importantly, a true one. It will fit into you like Atwood’s hook into an eye.