So I am left to the girls, real girls at last, in the flesh. But I'm not used to girls, or familiar with their customs. I feel awkward around them, I don't know what to say. I know the unspoke rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder.Atwood's novel, Cat's Eye, is told in brutal flashbacks to the narrator's girlhood. After a young childhood spent on the road in Northern Canada with her entomologist father, her family settles in Toronto and Elaine is taken in by a group of elementary school girls. The novel alternates between Elaine's adulthood (she is a surrealist painter, in Toronto for a retrospective show of her work) and her painful progression from elementary school through to that adult future.
Elaine's early childhood and family relationships are the comforting center of the novel. Her eccentric parents and nerdy brother provide the kind of delightfully oblivious stability that families ought to provide throughout a particularly turbulent adolescence (and, like any particularly turbulent adolescent, Elaine is fully immune to their virtues). Inserted in between the horrors of puberty are delightfully odd moments: tours of her father's entomology lab, astronomy lessons from her brother, her mother cooking dinner over a camp stove in a men's workshirt. Where Elaine is being dragged under by the current of teenage society, her family drifts somehow above it.
Where Atwood excels, and what makes the book both fabulous and at times difficult to read, is in her portrayal of the viciousness of young female relationships. Elaine's little knot of friends identifies her early on as the black sheep and spends middle and high school brutalizing her. Their attacks run the gamut from subtle ("training" Elaine by quietly pointing out her every fault) to downright cold-blooded (forcing her down a snowy riverbank and leaving her once she falls through the ice). We know Elaine survives it all, but it's touch and go there for a while. I found myself terrified that my unborn child might be a girl--no part of this experience seems okay and all parts of it felt unsettlingly familiar.
A novel build on catty female relationships could easily slide into the trashy, but Atwood's writing keeps it centered. The whole book is haunting and beautifully written, but the first paragraphs may have been my favorite (and among my favorites this year):
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.The sweater; the slow drift of the older sibling; the fluidity of memory. All in half a page. This was an emotionally challenging read and a little bit of a slog plot-wise, but flashes like this one made it very worth it.
It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his raveling maroon sweater to study and spent a lot of time standing on his head so that the blood would run down to his brain and nourish it. I didn't understand what he meant, but maybe he didn't explain it very well. He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
But 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 look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.