Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: Funny and poignant account of female relationships

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

‘Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’ is a truly cracking read.’ File photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

‘Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’ is a truly cracking read.’ File photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

When I was 14, my mother gave me Cat’s Eye as a salve, along with Potter’s ointment. The latter was for my spotty face, while Cat’s Eye was for my heart. I was, then, continually dismayed by the rules and coded hierarchies of teenage girls, which was especially unfortunate for me, as, going to a Catholic all-girls school, I also knew no boys.

Cat’s Eye follows its main character, Elaine, through various periods of her life, which are interspersed throughout the novel. Her youth is written in the present tense, evoking a child’s breathless immediacy, while adulthood is written in the past, reflecting the endless remembering that comes with layered experience.

The book pivots around the abusive childhood relationship between Elaine and her best friend, Cordelia, which lasts, through permutations, into their 30s; we’re given Elaine’s suffering and confusion, alongside a masterful depiction of the female tendency to compartmentalise, and even actively forget, bad experiences, in order to endure and survive the pain of living through them. It is a pain felt silently, that comes of the realisation that such experiences are inexpressible amongst women – that we lack the necessary vocabulary.

So, along with being a truly cracking read, funny, intelligent and poignant, Cat’s Eye exposes us to the murky undersides of our own lives and behaviours, just as great novels should. Only this time, it’s specifically the truth of female behaviour, written honestly and without the sickly idealisation or righteousness that often comes with the territory. Rather, Atwood frankly analyses the embittered relationships between women that result of a world in which we are inculcated into objectification, boredom, disappointment and the terrible isolation that comes of learning how not to speak:

“We can’t ask our mothers . . . Between us and them is a gulf, an abyss, that goes down and down. It’s filled with wordlessness . . . The world is dirty, no matter how much they clean, and we know they will not welcome our grubby little questions. So instead a long whisper runs among us, from child to child, gathering horror.”

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