Review: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood Print E-mail

catseye(San Diego Tribune February 17, 1989)

Poignant Confession

One among many achievements of Margaret Atwood's new novel is that it is possible to unveil much this poignant story offers without giving away its heart.

Once touched, this heart seems boundless, a cup running over, a spring capable of repeated renewals.

Big-hearted with a big B. To read it is also to sense the work as a blueprint for living, a sort of prayer book disguised as a novel.

Atwood has written a magnificent confession about a woman at midlife finding herself while forgiving the self she thought she was. But more, her novel seems to model a voice that best expresses anyone's painful search for an unfettered, cleansed self.

Few works that tackle the enigma of personal identity radiate with such integrity and openness, seeking to unravel the knotted-up lies of a lifetime.

Its honesty is unforgettable. Astride her other "feminist" novels, including the very successful "The Handmaid's Tale," "Cat's Eye" erects another beacon of liberation, grounded in the awakening lives of girls, mothers and female artists. But beyond the gender truths, here we have a highly personal portrait of a woman unlearning the bitterness of her past (which includes many strictures of feminism), lessons that cannot awaken others until she learns them herself. Elaine Risley, a painter pushing 50, has returned to Toronto, where she grew up and went to art school, for a retrospective show.

Walking the gentrified city, she recalls her buried life in scenes as turbulent as those her paintings depict, which (she'll learn) have preserved her past better that she has. While the show is readied, she remembers.

First, her girlhood in the late '40s, in which she is terrorized by the "whispering indirectness" of her girlfriends, meanest of which is the precociously aggressive Cordelia. Second, her adolescence, in which she fights back, spurred by a talent for fainting and her own "mean mouth," and discovers the wonder of Time from her Time-obsessed brother Stephen.

Third, her art school years, which feature an affair with her student-seducing teacher Josef and marriage to the mercurial avant-garde '60s artist Jon. The marriage results in a child, a suicide attempt, a divorce and triumphs and bouts with women in the '70s movement.

When 40-year-old Elaine finds her old cat's-eye marble, she says "it's my life entire."

Like the book. In no time, it seems, so much time has past.

"For years I wanted to be older, and now I am."

The ping of her past, though, is real; it has shape, is permeable, "something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another.

You don't look back along time but down through is, like water.

Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing.

Nothing goes away." Atwood renders the past in the present tense.

The voicing (I rub my eyes; I know it would be wrong to be seen crying.") allows Elaine to experience, as if under hypnosis, the way she felt when things happened, lending great immediacy to the story and reflecting that most events/emotions remain in a continual present if they remain unresolved. But the past has eventuality.

And so this is a novel about a midlife crisis, not a crisis exclusively of middle age, but an accumulation of crises -- the repressed torments of childhood, the feigned martyrdom of youth and marriage -- that simmer in the unconscious.

For Elaine, self-acceptance will only come from an exhaustive examination of her often self-deceiving self. The locus of Elaine's bad feeling is Cordelia.

Her demands upon loyal friends are incredible: Elaine is put in a hole and "buried alive" under boards and dirt or sent across a nearly frozen pond to earn Cordelia's admiration.

To cleanse herself, Elaine occasionally peels off layers of skin. But, as an adult, how can she cast out Cordelia's taunts, which have always trailed her?

First, she must focus the past, and second, confront it. "Cordelia's face dissolves, re-forms: I can see her 9-year-old face taking shape beneath it.

This happens in an eye blink.

It's as if I've been standing outside in the dark and a shade has snapped up, over a lighted window, revealing the life that's been going on inside.... A wave of blood goes up to my head, my stomach shrinks together, as if something dangerous has just missed hitting me.

It's as if I've been caught stealing, or telling a lie; or as if I've heard other people talking about me, saying bad things about me, behind my back.

There's the same flush of shame, of guilt and terror, and of cold disgust with myself.

But I don't know where these feelings have come from, what I've done." Because Elaine identifies herself (mistakenly) as complicit in Cordelia's games, she carries guilt into marriage and then to the women's movement. Although a woman's meeting in the early '70s concludes that "What is wrong with us the way we are is men," Elaine still feels at fault, feels her mistakes are like sin. Elaine finally unloads her burden at her show while confronting the many career-spanning paintings she has done of Mrs. Smeath -- another childhood taunter who knew what was "wrong" with Elaine but wouldn't tell her. "Now I can see myself, through these painted eyes of Mrs. Smeath: a frazzle-headed ragamuffin from heaven knows could she know what germs of blasphemy and unfaith were breeding in me?

Some of this is true.

I have not done it justice, or rather mercy.

Instead I went for vengeance.

An eye for an eye leads only to more blindness." You won't find a more clear-eyed novelist, one who cares so deeply for every exposed layer of sadness, anger and remorse.

The past becomes us better once we have forgiven ourselves for having lived it.