There are few reading pleasures more delightful than the feeling of instant rapport with a narrative voice that immerses you into a confidence both close and resonant. Such is the case with Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel, Cat’s Eye, which shares qualities with her other fiction books that cast a spell on the reader through first-personal recollections. You can’t help yourself from wanting to know more about the spinner of the sentences. Atwood, is, of course, also adept at different kinds of fictional enchantments, as evidenced by the virtuoso, shape-shifting of genres she has deployed in such acclaimed works as The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985) and The Blind Assassin (2000).
In Cat’s Eye, the voice belongs to Elaine Risley, a painter who has come back to her native Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her art. On that return from a self-imposed and apparently necessary exile, she begins to un-layer her past: lost friends, lost luck, lost meaning. From the outset, Elaine’s voice is capacious, curious and personal: “I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t back along time but down through it, like water.”
She gives her childhood as the daughter of an entomologist, a vivid, almost organic presence, and writes vividly about her teenaged friendship with Cordella. There may be no other sentence that better captures the energy of adolescence than the one in which Elaine describes the irrepressible innocence with which she and Cordella disrupt the fatigue of elders on a city bus: “We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen.” Her recollections of Cordella are also imbued with longing and an ominous undertone of elegy, for it is their relationship that introduces Elaine to the confusions of loyalty and love, the effects of cruelty and betrayal, and the contradictory repercussions of liberty.
Atwood is just as sensitive in articulating all the aches of adulthood and the pains in love, the fleeting truths of creativity and the hard consequences of big ambitions not quite big enough. Throughout the book, time is not only a bewildering dimension, it’s a familiar and bewildering experience. There’s something validating about hearing your thoughts in the reminiscing voice of another, even when you’ve never been able to find your own words for them, as the reader is likely to discover again and again in the pages of this remarkable novel.