At just under 500 pages, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, is a book to slowly savour rather than to greedily gobble up.
Published in 1988, this tells the story of an artist, Elaine, from childhood to middle-age, through the lens of bullying; Elaine’s experiences of being bullied at school and the terrible toll it takes on her, casting long shadows throughout her life.
Elaine Risley, a painter, returns to Toronto to find herself overwhelmed by her past. Memories of childhood – unbearable betrayals and cruelties – surface relentlessly, forcing her to confront the spectre of Cordelia, once her best friend and tormentor, who has haunted her for forty years.
Elaine has a remarkable memory, recalling every detail from her difficult childhood; these memories are triggered as she revisits the city she grew up in as she prepares to open an exhibition of her work. We are privy to dark and disturbing descriptions of the pain she felt at the hands of her bullies, who were once her friends.
I found the book somewhat heavy going; I was at once curious to read about Elaine’s childhood experiences with her foe, Cordelia, yet also afraid of where it would all lead. It’s fascinating to see how her childhood experiences influenced her adulthood, yet also depressing. I kept with the story, hoping for a full-on confrontation with Cordelia and the past, for some explosive moment that would absolve Elaine and free her to move on, while somehow giving Cordelia the comeuppance she so clearly deserves.
The line blurs between the past and the present; do our memories remain locked up in physical locations that no longer resemble those places as we remembered them, or are we prisoners of the past, never quite free enough to move on, and forever reminded of the past by walking down the streets of our youth?
If I had to describe this book in one word it would be: haunted.