CAT’s EYE IS reminiscence without nostalgia, stripping the rosy haze of the past to reveal the power politics behind the apparently artless charm of little girls and their games. Margaret Atwood has never been a reassuring writer, but here she outdoes herself, in writing which is more malicious, unillusioned and witty than ever before.
Her subject is a destructive friendship between two nine year old girls, Elaine and Cordelia, as seen by the survivor forty years later. The ‘smalltown threadbare decency’ of post-War Toronto, where the authority of Eaton’s home furnishing catalogue is rivalled only by that of Scripture, and where twin-sets and coat-trees arc objects of reverence, provides the backdrop to a terrifying examination of psychological sabotage and its legacy. ‘Look at yourself! Just look!’ is not an easy order to forget, as Elaine Risley, acclaimed post-feminist painter, finds on her return to Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work. The scornful words of the child Cordelia reverberate throughout her life, transforming every thought and action into a transgression against an unwritten code. In this fictional autobiography, Elaine traces the story of her anxiety, from its beginnings in playground persecution to its culmination in her pictures of surreal domestic images; women cooking, women cleaning, women wrapped in white paper or flying through the air. ‘I don’t want to be nine years old forever,’ she declares, but despite her protest, she seems to be locked into a nightmare of self-consciousness which was initiated years before by her best friend.
‘I worry about what I’ve said today, the expression on my face, how I walk, what I wear, because all of these things need improvement. I am not normal. I am not like other girls. Cordelia tells me so, but she will help me.’
Cordelia and her sidekicks, prissy Carol Campbell and pious, pimpled Grace Smeath, play upon Elaine’s need to be liked, driving her to ever increasing extremes of self-inflicted suffering. Her commands – never relax, always remember we’re watching you – arc all the more damaging because they are given in the