Friday, 8 January 2016

Book Review: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Many of us tend to think of childhood as the happiest time in life because we associate anxieties and worries with the adult world. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t care about age and not all children enjoy a sheltered and carefree existence. It’s not necessarily adults who make a child’s life the perfect hell. Children can be really cruel among themselves. While boys may do bodily harm to others to show their supremacy, girls often prefer more subtle ways of terror that can undermine the victim’s self-esteem even more lastingly. As a child in primary school the protagonist of Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood has been bullied by three girls whom she considered her best friends, but she was lucky. She was able to free herself just when her inexplicable dependence took a dangerous turn. Moreover, she became a painter who could get over the dreadful experience in her creative work.

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in November 1939, but grew up mostly in Toronto from the age of seven. She studied English at the universities of Toronto and Harvard which qualified her to teach at different Canadian universities for a living. She made her literary debut as a poet with the privately published volume titled Double Persephone (1961) which was followed by three more poetry books until 1969, when her first novel, The Edible Woman, came out. Starting with Life Before Man (1979) almost all novels of the prolific as well as versatile writer won or were at least longlisted for prestigious literary awards. Apart from her much acclaimed science-fiction works The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and the MaddAddam Trilogy consisting of Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), the novels Cat's Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin (2000) need to be mentioned. In addition, the author brought out poetry, several short-story collections, children’s books, TV scripts, opera libretti and non-fiction. She is also known for her comic drawings published under the pseudonym Bart Gerrard. Margaret Atwood lives with her partner in Toronto, Canada.

In the late 1980s of Cat’s Eye a gallery in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, organises a retrospective exhibition of works by renowned painter Elaine Risley. She returns to the city where she passed her formative years reluctantly because she doesn’t want to remember those old days following World War II that weren’t as good to her a she would have wished them to be. School was tough at first because having roamed the country with her unconventional parents and her older brother Stephen she entered the society of her peers quite unprepared. Despite feeling awkward among girls, she quickly makes friends with Carol and Grace who initiate her into the unspoken rules of girls and the female role model of the late 1940s, but upon her return from summer holidays a new girl called Cordelia dominates the group. Cordelia soon takes advantage of Elaine’s insecurity to bully her with the help of Grace and Carol. Because the three of them are kind to her at other times, Elaine continues to see them as her “best friends”, though. Denying herself in order to please them and remain part of the group, makes Elaine suffer so much that before long she begins to hurt herself and to develop psychosomatic problems. Only after the trio went too far making her go down into the forbidden ravine alone in the dead of winter where the powerful vision of a woman saved her from freezing, she is finally able to free herself from the girls and harmful habits. She makes new friends. In high school she meets Cordelia again and they resume their old “friendship”, but now Elaine is the stronger part. While Elaine finds her own way, becomes a painter, has a family and leaves Toronto, Cordelia loses all direction.

The first-person narrative Cat’s Eye is a dense character study and a sensitive story about bullying among girls, about its cruel dynamics as well as its effects on the victim. In an evocative scene the author even shows how, out of the blue, such traumatic experiences can drive a victim into suicide years later. Everything that happened left scars, but in her middle years they no longer hurt the painter because the pain went into her pictures. Thanks to the retrospective exhibition that brought her to Toronto, she realises that she has come to terms with her past. To make understand how those painful years influenced Elaine’s character, her relations to others and her art, the author juxtaposes present and past opening each of fourteen parts except the first with a chapter set in the 1980s and continuing with mainly flashbacks that advance the story more or less chronologically and with increasing pace from primary school to the novel’s present. Memory, however, has the power to bridge and blend time which means that in the novel too the separation of past and present must necessarily be incomplete. The unpretentious and precise language that is also rich in images heightens the effect.

All things considered, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is easy to read and yet difficult to fathom because of the complexity of the human soul, especially Elaine’s, and of social relations. It’s also an important novel because it draws attention to bullying that has become a huge problem in our modern, overly competitive society – among children and among adults alike – although it’s far too often played down or even hushed up. Who knows how many people every year could be prevented from running amok if we protected them from bullies in time… or even better if we raised our children in a way that none of them feels the need to bully others? Unfortunately, standard procedures won’t help, but learning more about how the bullied feel and how the minds of bullies work is a good first step. Hence this novel definitely deserves my recommendation!

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