Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2009

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood

I’m having a little flirtation with Canadian literature – reading two Canadian books within a week!

Kevin from Canada has written a perceptive essay about similarities between Australia and Canada, and he’s right: we do have much in common and these similarities influence preoccupations in our literature.  However there is one difference which is all-encompassing to Australians: Canada is geographically connected to the rest of the world – and we are not.  We’re not even connected with New Zealand,  our nearest English-speaking neighbour with a sort-of-similar history as a British colony, but it’s over 2000km away across the Tasman Sea.  We don’t have the same accent and we can’t get their TV or radio stations.  We don’t know who their TV stars are, or their football leagues.  We don’t watch their films and we don’t take any notice of their literary awards (except here at ANZ LitLovers, of course!)   Most of us have never been there either.

In Canada you can walk, ride or drive to another country.  Not only that, but what’s just over the border is the most powerful and influential country in the world, the US.  During the Vietnam War, draft dodgers slipped over the border to Canada, and Canadian kids dreaming of excitement and adventure could plan similar cross-border excursions.  Yes, you can get into, and you can get out of Canada without too much fuss, and what’s more, you can fly to Europe and see the rest of the world without too much trouble and expense as well.

If you travel to Australia by ocean liner, as I did as a child, you have some understanding of just how far away it is from everything.  By comparison, 20 hours in a plane to Europe is just a crude glimpse of its isolation, though the air fare would give most Canadians pause for thought.  Yes, it’s tiresome and expensive to get into, and out of, Australia.  It’s well within living memory that a phone call to England was prohibitively expensive, that world news came by unreliable cable, that letters from grandparents in the UK took 6 weeks to get here.  Well, satellites and the internet may have changed communication, but the geographical isolation persists: it still takes hours and hours in a plane to get anywhere.

Wars are fought overseas;  trends and fashions are overseas; status and power are overseas, and added to this sense of being marooned a long way away from everything – though watching it on TV – is the fact that we’re in the southern hemisphere.  Our seasons are upside down; Christmas doesn’t come with snow,  April doesn’t bring Spring showers. We feel left out and vaguely embarrassed when everyone else is talking about blizzards in December or heat waves in June.

Published in 1988 Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood, traces a Canadian childhood and adolescence in the forties and fifties, a time when Australia was still culturally isolated from the rest of the world yet resolutely British in character.  (Post war migration brought Europeans here in large numbers to boost our pathetically small population, but they had yet to influence our way of life.)   What’s fascinating for me, is how close Atwood’s observations are to my understanding of what Australia was apparently like then too.  (I was born post-war, and didn’t arrive here till the 60s, but I’ve eavesdropped on lots of (mostly scornful, rarely nostalgic) conversations about Australia in the 40s and 50s, and of course I’ve read stories set in the period such as Steven Carroll’s The Art of the Engine Driver  as well as non fiction such as  The Australian Ugliness in which Robin Boyd derided Australia’s 1950s conformity).  Yet, seen through the prism of Atwood’s feminism, it seems that little girls in Canada were pretty much like little girls in Australia too: preoccupied with fitting in, with being good, and with surviving the spite and cruelty of other little girls whose malice was enough to scar the psyche for life.

The novel tells the story of Elaine Risley, an artist revisiting Toronto for a retrospective of her works.  It’s not a place of happy memories: after a peripatetic childhood while her father researched insects in the Canadian wilderness, Elaine and her brother Stephen have to adapt to living in a half-finished house (the builder absconded); to attending school, and to fitting into the pre-assigned gender roles of the period.  While for Stephen this seems effortless, for Elaine it is a torture made up of betrayals, cruelties, rejections and occasional real harm.  She is powerless to deal with it, and her mother’s feeble efforts to protect her from it are sabotaged by Elaine herself.  She goes on sabotaging herself right through adolescence and into adulthood…

Her ‘best friend’ and most malicious tormentor is Cordelia.  Why did her parents name her thus, wonders Elaine, and rightly so, for she is nothing like Shakespeare’s Cordelia at all.

…these are ways of delaying time, slowing it down, so I won’t have to go out through the kitchen door.  But no matter what I do, and despite myself, I am pulling on my snowpants, wadding my skirt in between my legs, tugging thick woollen socks on over my shoes, stuffing my feet into boots.  Coat, scarf, mittens, knitted hat, I am encased, I am kissed, the door opens, then closes behind me, frozen air shoots up my nose.  I waddle through the orchard of leafless apple trees, the legs of my snowpants whisking against each other, down to the bus stop.

Grace is waiting there and Carol, and especially Cordelia.  Once I’m outside the house there is no getting away from them.  They are on the school bus, where Cordelia stands close beside me and whispers in my ear: ‘Stand up straight! People are looking!’ Carol is in my classroom, and it’s her job to report to Cordelia what I do and say all day.  They’re there at recess, and in the cellar at lunchtime.  They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew.  On the way home from school I have to walk in front of them, or behind.  In front is worse because they talk about how I’m walking, how I look from behind. ‘Don’t hunch over,’ says Cordelia. ‘Don’t move your arms like that.’

They don’t say any of the things they say to me in front of others, even other children: whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only.  Secrecy is important, I know that: to violate if would be the greatest, the irreparable sin.  If I tell I will be cast out forever. (P119-120)

There is much more to it than this, but I want to avoid spoilers…

Atwood’s feminism is alert to the incongruity of the power games these little girls play.  They do it, it seems, because they don’t have any other power.  Like the adult women, they are excluded from the real action in this period; they have no one to prey on but each other.  While the girls’ mothers may dabble in the arts, absorb themselves in religion, or play homemaker in a kind of desperation, they have no careers, no income, no power and no status.   School teachers are caricatures in drab clothing; they are irrelevant.  (Even in the 70s when Elaine goes to hear Stephen deliver his lecture on astrophysics, the audience is mostly men.)  Yet Elaine is conflicted about the ‘women’s meetings’ she goes to in adulthood; she sees herself as a collaborator in male/female stereotyping too.

Atwood’s humour is both droll and biting.  Here’s Elaine in the new department store:

I revolve through the revolving doors into Simpsons, where I become lost immediately.  They’ve changed the whole thing over. It used to be sedate wood-trimmed glass counters, with gloves in standard models, appropriate wristwatches, accent scarves in floral prints.  Serious-minded good taste.  Now it’s a cosmetic fairground: silver trim, gold pillars, marquee lights, brand-name letters the size of a human head.  The air is saturated with the stink of perfumes at war.  There are video screens on which flawless complexions turn, preen, sigh through their parted lips, are caressed.  On other screens are closeups of skin pores, before and after, details of regimes for everything, your hands, your neck, your thighs.  Your elbows, especially your elbows: aging begins at the elbows and metastasizes.

This is religion.  Voodoo and spells.  I want to believe in it, the creams, the rejuvenating lotions, the transparent unguents in vials that slick on like roll-top glue.  ‘Don’t you know what that junk is made of?’ Ben said once.  ‘Ground-up cock’s combs.’ But this doesn’t deter me, I’d use anything if it worked – slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip drip of time, stay more or less the way I am. (p113)

The most poignant scene was, for me, at the end, when Elaine – successful in art, happily partnered, and mother of two dear little girls, – finds herself envying two daggy old ladies on the bus.

They seem to me to be amazingly carefree.  They have saved up for this trip and they are damn well going to enjoy it, despite the arthritis of one, the swollen legs of the other.  They’re rambunctious, they’re full of beans; they’re tough as thirteen, they’re innocent and dirty, they don’t give a hoot. Responsibilities have fallen away from them, obligations, old hates and grievances; now for a short while they can play again like children, but this time without the pain.

This is what I miss, Cordelia; not something that’s gone, but something that will never happen.  Two old women giggling over their tea. (p420-1)

This was my sixth Atwood, and my last book for 2009 – a great one to end on.   Happy reading in 2010, everyone!

The only other review I could find is at Time Magazine.

Update 18/11/20: Bill reviewed it too at The Australian Legend.

Author: Margaret Atwood
Title: Cat’s Eye
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 1989
Source: Personal copy ($8.00, secondhand, Diversity Books in Mentone)



  1. I really want to read Cat’s Eye and it may have to be one of the first books of 2010. I love the idea behind it and of course, Margaret Atwood is just a fabulous writer.


  2. Have you read The Year of the Flood yet? Opinions seem to be a bit divided about it.


  3. Lisa: Excellent review — Atwood and I parted company with A Handmaid’s Tale (I have not read anything since and don’t regret that), so it is useful to be reminded of when she was still writing books that I did like. I read Cat’s Eye when it was published and your review indicates that I have forgotten much of it.

    Thanks also for the mention of my essay on Australian and Canadian fiction. It is certainly true that while the two countries have many things in common, there are other things that they absolutely do not share — i.e. having the U.S. right next door comes with both benefits and drawbacks. In many ways, it is those differences that put fiction into an even better perspective for comparison.


  4. Surely Kevin, there is a book in this topic, about the similarities and differences between the literature of our resepctive countries? Not an academic book, not a massive tome, but one for the general literary reader, with nice pictures of things that literary tourists go to see and maps showing the coffee houses haunted by the author etc.
    And *chuckle* if you were the man to write it, that would justify a tax deductible trip to Oz, would it not? I could show you round Melbourne!
    Happy New Year!


  5. Thanks for the thought, but I think I’ll restrict myself to trying to inspire someone else to write the book.


  6. *chuckle* Kevin, you just don’t want to read any more Atwoods!


  7. Nice review Lisa. It’s been a long time since I read this book, that I almost want to read it again. I have been thinking about making Atwood my fourth favourite writers post as I’ve been a big fan of hers BUT I haven’t read her last couple so feel that would be a bit of a fraud. Why, Kevin, did you part company with her at A Handmaid’s Tale? That’s when, I think, she hit her stride (though perhaps I only think that because I’ve only read, I think, one book that she wrote prior to that).


    • I don’t think you should hang back just because you haven’t read the last couple – because there’s plenty enough out there in cyberspace about those two. What’s missing is a good survey of what came before, because of course bloggers weren’t blogging when she wrote them. So go ahead, I’d like to read it. I’ve got Alias Grace, Lady Oracle and Wilderness Tips still to read on my TBR, so I’d be interested in them, and the other ones I read pre blog: The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, Oryx and Crake, and The Penelopiad. Lisa PS Happy new year! I have spent nearly the whole day fooling around with Ch 12 of Ulysses (Cyclops). How I love that book!


  8. whisperinggums: I’m not a fan of dystopian novels generally and MA’s public posturing around her books (her tour of cathedrals and churches with choirs singing her “hymns” from The Year of the Flood being the most recent example) added to that distaste. I thought she was quite a good novelist but now uses her considerable writing talent as a proselytizer for a world view that I just don’t find very interesting.


    • I did notice some quite prescient commentary in Cat’s Eye about environmental issues… Lisa


  9. Fair enough Kevin … I actually quite like dystopian novels. I guess though I tend to ignore her non-literary stuff (though have read a little about her birdwatching enthusiasm.) She comes across as pretty formidable. I’ve seen her live once here and she took no prisoners, that’s for sure!

    Lisa…I’ve read all those you have, except for Oryx and Crake AND I’ve read Alias Grace and Bodily harm. I have Bluebeard’s egg in my TBR (for the longest time – like probably since about when it came out. Oryx and Crake is the same but of course that’s not been hanging around so long!!)


    • Well placed to write that post, then *smile*


  10. Except of course I have to get the memory faculties going and that’s not so easy these days!!


  11. I did read The Year of the Flood and really enjoyed it. I hadnt read Oryx and Crake so am wondering if will spoil it or not. I guess I will find out when I pick it up later in the year!


  12. I quite enjoyed Oryx and Crake – quite different to what I expected, but then, we would expect writers like Atwood to experiment, I guess.


  13. I ought to read more Atwood. The only one I’ve read is “Alias Grace”.

    As per the differences between Canada and Australia, I had an interesting conversation about this just before Christmas. My brother-in-law is Canadian and he wanted to know if I “felt Australian”. I said yes; it was hard not to when you grow up in such an isolated part of the world, unconnected to any other landmass. When I asked him if he “felt Canadian” he said no. He reckons he’s “north american”. I thought that was an interesting take.

    Funnily enough, on my recent travels to Australia, after almost four years away, the thing that really struck me was the media’s constant reinforcement of the Australian identity. All the ads claim this is made in Oz, or “proudly Australian” or the oldest or biggest company in Australia etc etc And the flag, my god, the flag is EVERYWHERE.


  14. You’re right about the flag – I’ve notice it too over recent years. It seems we are copying America (as we seem to do in so many things). It’s a worrying – if not downright scary – trend I think.


  15. I wouldn’t mind so much if it were not such a dreary flag…


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: