by Margaret Atwood
I came late to Margaret Atwood – and by late I mean the first book I read by this Canadian literary phenomenon was The Blind Assassin, her suspenseful 2000 Man Booker Prize winner, although she had been publishing memorable novels since the late 1960s. Well, my Atwood baptism may have been delayed by a couple of decades, but it was no less bracing for all that, and I have ever since been an enthusiastic admirer of this gifted, outstandingly versatile writer.
From speculative fiction, to feminism, to reworking of ancient myths and legends (and the rest) her literary output has moved from the thrillingly unexpected to devilishly inventive. During the 1980s and 90s she produced some of her most memorable fiction – not least her eerily prophetic The Handmaid’s Tale, to name but one – and collected an array of awards along the way. One such novel was Cat’s Eye from 1988, which brought her several prizes (including Coles Book of the Year and the City of Toronto Book Award).
Written in flashbacks, Cat’s Eye vividly retells the life of artist, Elaine Risley, from vulnerable childhood to troubled middle-age. The daughter of a travelling entomologist, her early years are spent on the road with her father, mother and brother, sleeping under the stars and booking into dingy rooms for the night. Only when her family settles permanently in Toronto, and she attends school for the first time, does she realise how vastly different her life has been from those of her new classmates and their small-minded parents. She is compelled to learn big city survival techniques, and must endure mundane cruelty on a daily basis, which is dished out by her ‘best friends’ under the guise of self improvement.
In this perspicacious tale, Atwood explores socialization, femininity, shame and art as an outlet for suppressed memories. It is a truly haunting read and, in my opinion, one of her finest novels.