Picks and Pans Review: Cat's Eye

updated 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

By Margaret Atwood

In the years that followed, her mother referred to it vaguely, hesitantly, as "that bad time you had." But for feminist painter Elaine Risley, the protagonist of this novel, the time was a slice of childhood agony so severe she would bury it beyond memory, allowing it to escape only in the grotesque, haunting images of her canvases. Where Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale explored the oppression of a male oligarchy in some distant future, Cat's Eye probes the more terrifying terrain of 20th-century relationships, especially among women. "Little girls are cute and small only to adults," Atwood writes. "To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized." Returning to Toronto, the scene of her youthful torment, for a retrospective of her work, Risley confronts her memories of Carol, Grace and—above all—Cordelia, whose little girl games of exclusion and redemption nearly cost Elaine her life at age 9. Now in her mid-40s, Risley wanders the city's streets. She fends off smug reporters. ("Probably she's out to get me," Risley thinks of one journalist. "Probably she'll succeed.") She shrugs off overblown interpretations of her paintings. She falls into the bed of her ex-husband. She surveys a department store, ruminating on her own inevitable end ("Aging begins at the elbows and metastasizes"). Elaine has another husband now. Her eccentric parents are dead; her brother has been arbitrarily executed in the Middle East ("He died of an eye for an eye, or someone's idea of it. He died of too much justice"). Her daughters, "born with some kind of protective coating, some immunity I lacked," have passed blithely beyond her care. She longs for a friend—a grown-up Cordelia, a Cordelia who never marred her innocence, a Cordelia who hadn't gone mad. The other women who challenge her—a rival found crumpled within the blood of a self-induced abortion; a fanatic who objects to Risley's portraits of the God-loving, child-torturing Mrs. Smeath—must also, eventually, be embraced. That's true because Risley, nearing 50, can finally discern in these women the same emotions that obsess her—"the same wish to be loved; the same loneliness; the same fear." There is hardly a sentence in Atwood's book that will not cause a reader to linger in sometimes amused, sometimes horrified, always startled recognition. Perhaps Atwood's most striking achievement, Cat's Eye is a courageous, awesome undertaking whose crystal-sharp vision shines too eerily but unerringly true. (Doubleday, $18.95)

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