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Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood

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Author: Margaret Atwood / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 15 February 1990 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group / Title: Cat's Eye / ISBN 13: 9781853811265 / ISBN 10: 1853811265

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      29.01.2010 17:47
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      A downbeat but rather beautiful story of a life

      I have a confession to make: it is a terrible trait, but I am instinctively biased against anyone or anything that appears to take itself too seriously. Books that I consider to be fairly modern but come with a reading guide included always make me slightly wary. To me, 'modern classics' is something of an oxymoron: surely a book has to at least achieve its centenary before the label 'classic' can be applied? How can we be sure that 'Cat's Eyes' will still speak to readers in the twenty third century in the way that Austen's novels still do in the twenty first? Or is prefixing the word 'modern' to the accolade of classic intended to suggest that this is a transient mode, lasting as long as 'The Beatles' but not as long as 'The Rolling Stones'? Now I'm clearly taking myself too seriously, so I'll stop there. Besides which, I was reading this for a reading group, and so, obviously, the publisher was not unduly optimistic in providing a reading group guide.

      Perhaps more to the point, Margaret Atwood is a seriously well established Canadian writer and poet. Her work has received great critical acclaim internationally, winning her many awards, including several honorary degrees. Her novels and poems are studied by university and A level students, written about by other writers and critics, and new novels are eagerly awaited by a large following. Her books are, indeed, 'modern classics'. Furthermore, I had read and loved (and even considered teaching) 'The Handmaid's Tale', so I must have liked something about her style myself.

      == The premise ==

      Irrelevant lexical/literary concerns aside then, I thought that the premise was an interesting one: Elaine Risley, entering late middle age, returns to the town which was the site of her youth and finds herself confronting her memories of childhood 'friends'. In particular, she is haunted by the memory of Cordelia, intriguingly described in the blurb as her 'best friend and tormentor'. The dramatic language and the suggestion that the novel would build to a gripping climax made me look past the strange front cover (an image of a woman holding a very large marble whilst floating, yes, floating, above a bridge) and delve inside.

      == The opening ==

      The first thing that struck me was a sense of organisation. I'm not sure that that's a good first impression! The contents page lists 15 unusually named sections, which are further divided into numbered chapters. The first chapter is very short (three brief paragraphs) and establishes a highly reflective narrator.

      'Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend time, you can bend space also...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...Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.'

      This was at one and the same time deliciously poetic and irritating pretentious. It was quite a relief in the next chapter to meet Cordelia, who, faced with the concept that 'time is not a line' says "So?" Well, it made me smile anyway. In a way, this is the entire concept of the book laid bare: nothing really goes away, and the past can affect you in ways that you are not even aware of. I found this appealed to me intuitively and I was keen to read on to find out how Elaine had been affected by her childhood experiences.

      Initially, Elaine describes her time spent with Cordelia in an amusing way, highlighting the freedom of youth to laugh at old age, but it quickly becomes clear that these apparently pleasant memories have some less pleasing subtext. By the end of the short opening section, Elaine is imagining watching her one-time 'best friend' dying in an iron lung. I really enjoyed the opening section and read it very quickly, keen to find out what had happened between the two characters.

      Elaine appears to wish for bad things to happen to Cordelia, but without Elaine being in any way responsible for them. This desire to harm without accepting any guilt neatly reveals the central passivity of Elaine's character. Her apparent desire to observe her friend dying was shocking in its coldness and, again, I wanted to read on to find out what had made Elaine feel this way.

      == Uncovering history ==

      Throughout the novel, the narrative style is highly reflective and often almost poetic as Atwood muses on the mundane concerns of our lives. This is quite pleasant to read, in that it flows rather nicely through the mind, but it does mean that the text feels very 'weighty' and I found that I tended to read the novel in short bursts. It was almost tiring to read about the significance attributed to every circumstance, especially since Elaine is a weary character, either worried about her actions or quietly angry about her situation. There is a sense that everything is connected and finally understood, which I found at once quite peaceful and quite overwhelming.

      I found the early part of the book was the most interesting as it focused on the childhood friendships between Elaine, Cordelia, Carol and Grace. Having only ever stayed in places for a short time, Elaine is a stranger to the world of girls and prefers the company of boys - she finds them more straightforward, less judgmental. Even without growing up as an outsider, I could empathise with this concern. Initially, she seems to be finding her place among her peers, but after her family's summer vacation, there is a new girl in town: Cordelia. Soon, Elaine is a victim of bullies who 'only want the best for her'. The cunning and cruelty of her three friends gradually escalates until it results in a very frightening situation.

      I felt that Atwood powerfully portrayed the shifting power dynamics between the girls. Although Elaine feels that she is the victim, Atwood's prose creates space for sympathy and, later, for understanding. Even this early on, you could catch glimpses of their lives behind the narrator's perception of them which meant that you never fully condemned them. In fact, at times I was frustrated with Elaine's passive acceptance of their bullying, although I never doubted the validity of Atwood's depiction. For me, this was the real heart of the novel and, after the 'frightening situation' was resolved, the book didn't have quite the same appeal.

      Like Cordelia's disinterest in time at the beginning ('So?'), the voices of the children make the narrative gently humorous in places. Carol's fascination with her new friend ('You never seen a coat-tree?'), and her disappointment when they stop sleeping on the floor, is engaging and convincing. The struggle for power is vividly depicted and Elaine is a largely sympathetic figure, although one with rather more maturity than your average nine year old. (The inevitable result of telling a story in flashback mode?) Although a story about bullying will always be uncomfortable in a sense, I did find this part of the story enjoyable to read.

      However, once Elaine begins to grow up, the years begin to whirl by and I lost much of my interest in her. I was vaguely interested in the possibility of a final confrontation between Elaine and Cordelia, but I couldn't summon up much interest in Elaine's student years, twenties or thirties. She has unsuitable relationships and becomes a 'painter'. She describes pictures painted at length and they are obviously highly symbolic. I just didn't care: what I cared about was the relationship with Cordelia. Perhaps I missed the point. However, I found it difficult to engage with pages describing a painting: it would perhaps have been easier if I could have seen the paintings Elaine had supposedly made.

      Elaine's insecurity is apparently represented by her refusal to call herself an 'artist' and her discomfort at feminist meetings, where she is seen as a traitor for Living With A Man. Personally, I think 'painter' is a perfectly apt job description, and that calling men 'the enemy' is a bit silly, but this is all highly significant and meaningful in Atwood's world. I'm all for symbolism, but I quite like to 'discover' it. I was reading this for pleasure and I felt that it would be more suited to a keen student. I wanted to read to enjoy, not read to dissect endless highly significant episodes in a rather mundane life.

      == The ending ==

      After Elaine's show concludes, the novel fades to an end. There is no official epilogue, although the final short chapter does create a certain air of finality. The ending is something and nothing at the same time: something happened, but it felt a bit like nothing - an anticlimax. I was expecting something rather different and felt quite disappointed. However, I think that I had spent too much of the novel hoping for a particular event, which is not consistent with Atwood's designs here. Her message that the past has an indelible impact on us is consistent with her ending, so if I was grading myself as a reader I'd have to say "she must read with an open mind, and not be irritated by low key endings". In terms of the novel itself, the ending is probably perfect.

      == Conclusions ==

      I'm not sure what I'd anticipated when I started reading this, but I think my expectations got in the way. I wonder whether I'd appreciate this more on a second read. Actually, I suspect that I'd like this book a lot more if it was about two thirds shorter, or if I'd sat down in 'student mode'.

      Atwood's style is heavy going in the sense that the first person narrator's mood is quite downbeat, but it is also poetic when treating even quite mundane aspects of life and tends to elevate its material into something more meaningful. Perhaps this would resonate more with middle age readers who are beginning to reflect on their lives to date.

      So is it worth reading? Possibly. At least the early chapters definitely are, then you may need some light relief. If you aren't looking for dramatic conclusions then it could be quite an interesting read.

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        19.01.2009 13:19
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        Overall I enjoyed with and will read more by this author

        I picked this book up in a charity shop recently, as I'd heard good things about Margaret Atwood and the blurb on the back sounded interesting. This is the first novel I've read by her and won't be the last. It was short listed for the Booker Prize back in 1988.


        ++PLOT++

        Elaine Risley is a prominent artist who returns to Toronto for an exhibition of her work. She spent most of her childhood in Toronto, and while alone in the city is forced to confront memories of her past, particularly those of Cordelia who was both a friend and bully to her and who has haunted her for the last forty years.

        The story then jolts backwards and forwards in time as we follow Elaine's treks around her old haunts in Toronto, as well as the story of her childhood. Elaine's father was a scientist who studied insects, meaning he and his family travelled a lot so they were practically nomads when Elaine was very young. But when he took on a teaching post at a university, the family settled in Toronto, where Elaine made friends with a girl named Carol, and later another girl named Grace. The family hit the road again for a while but on their return, Carol and Grace have a new friend named Cordelia. Although friendly initially, Cordelia soon turns to bullying Elaine, seeing how far she can push her to do what she wants. What follows is Elaine's struggle, as she starts to self-harm and faint at will as a means of coping with the bullying.

        However the novel moves on to Elaine's teenage years and beyond, and details how she and Cordelia become friends again. Eventually, over time, the tables turn and Cordelia is at the mercy of Elaine, who is now the stronger person. The combination of how Elaine reacts in this situation, and the memory of Cordelia's bullying, lead to the emotional turmoil Elaine now experiences on her return to Toronto.

        The relationship between bully and victim is played out brilliantly. I was bullied myself for a time so could relate to Elaine's despair but at the same time could see beyond Cordelia's actions to the fact that something in her life has led her to act this way. Her behaviour towards Elaine is despicable and utterly believeable, as is Elaine's reactions to how she is treated. Elaine and Cordelia are both victims. We can see throughout the story just what sort of a life Cordelia has had and why she was compelled to treat Elaine the way she did.

        Elaine has become a success in her life, although her story shows it was a hard struggle to get there with much heartache along the way. She has used her art as a means of release, painting pictures of many people from her past who have affected her in some way. She now seems to have a better grasp on who she is, unlike when she was a child. Her nomadic lifestyle and the bullying left her confused and torn, unsure of her identity. This is reflected well in the setting of post-WW2 Canada, a country that at that time was also unsure of its identity and how it fitted into the bigger picture.

        This story is heartbreaking but at the same time invigorating as it shows how we carry emotions such as loss, grief and guilt without realising, until something triggers a release. The relationships between Elaine and her friends are portrayed wonderfully, full of the complexities, favouritism and "bitchiness" that schoolgirl friendships are rife with.

        The prose is excellent and brought the world to life, although I felt at times some of it was a bit long-winded and unnecessary. As a consequence, there were a few places in which I just skimmed over a couple of passages. I was also unsure about the ending. I felt as if the book was building up to an explosive climax and could hardly put it down because I wanted to know what was going to happen. But it went a bit flat, to be honest. And while all the loose ends were tied up (not that there were many), I couldn't really pin point the moment that Elaine came to terms with everything, so I was a bit disappointed.


        ++CHARACTERS++

        I liked Elaine as a child. She was resilient and observant and clearly hurting. I felt sorry for her, yet I felt frustrated by her, and I like it when a character brings forth a mix of emotions in me. However I found Elaine as an adult a bit too self-contained and not a particularly nice person. There were two incidents - one with a reporter and one with her ex-husband - that didn't paint her in a good light and didn't enamour her to me at all. At times it was hard to accept that woman and child were the same person. I found her more complex and interesting as a child.

        Cordelia is also a complex character, wonderfully portrayed. As I said above, although she is the bully, it is easy to see where she is a victim aswell, so she isn't stereotyped as a typical baddie. Carol and Grace are realistically portrayed aswell. First of all in their acceptance of Elaine and subsequent friendship, but then in their loathing and willingness to go along with Cordelia, keen to go along with her to spare becoming the victim themselves.

        Elaine's family are laidback and eccentric so in direct contrast to the strait-laced and formidable parents of her peers. This is something that sets Elaine apart from the others. And while this could be viewed as a good thing, to her friends it is simply something that makes her different from them, and therefore adds further fuel to the fire.


        ++CONCLUSION++

        This isn't an easy book to read in some places, which is testament to how realistic it is. The prose is poetic, although a bit over done at times, and the characters are realistic. My main gripe is the ending, which I felt was flatter than the story merited. I would liked to have seen a showdown with Cordelia, but it didn't happen. Overall its an enjoyable read but more for people who appreciate good prose rather than action-packed novels. It reads more like a memoir that a story so is quite slow-moving.

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          14.11.2008 15:47
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          Not an Atwood best in my humble opinion!

          As some of you might already know, Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors so it will come as no surprise that I am reviewing another of her books!

          Despite "Cats Eye" being published back in 1988 and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it isn't a book I had read! My boyfriend picked it up for me in a book store and presented me with it - silly really as he knows I'm an Atwood fan so though it was very thoughtful and of course I was pleased and grateful, he had no idea if I had read it or not before, good for him (and me!) that I hadn't!

          So off I went on my holiday to get myself lost in another of her delights by the pool...

          === Plot ===

          The story is a retrospective account of the life of Elaine Risley, a middle aged artist who returns to her childhood home of Toronto for a showing of her work. Returning to her homeland from Vancouver sparks childhood memories for Elaine, which are far from pleasant.

          Through the book, we are taken back and forth from her present life to her childhood, teenage years and early adulthood. The reader is introduced to Elaine's childhood friend, Cordelia, who was both her friend as well as a tormentor and bully. Cordelia's power games, friendship and cruel streak have left their mark on Elaine and she still feels the impact of Cordelia on her life in the present. This is the story of Elaine's life coping with Cordelia. At the beginning of the novel, we see how Elaine completely dotes on Cordelia allowing Cordelia all of the power, and eventually we see a role reversal between the women at later stages. This is a relationship where the line between friendship and enemy is blurred - for both characters.

          The future part of Elaine's story is constantly tinged with hesitant hope that Elaine might see Cordelia again at the gallery showing of her work, so the story feels like its leading up to a big event...

          == My Thoughts, the GOOD... ==

          Quite obviously, I had huge hopes for this book. It is told from Elaine's perspective and knowing Atwood's style of writing, it was easy to get in to. It is still written beautifully - there are many phrases like all of her novels that stick out and are just perfect to read. The first couple of chapters are quite slow, setting up the story of Elaine's relatively poor family and the meeting of her circle of friends, Grace, Carol and of course Cordelia.

          What keeps you reading throughout the book firstly are Cordelia's mind games. Once again, like many of her previous books, Atwood has a streak of feminist attitude with this one- the character of Elaine often mentions that she feels comfortable around boys and if boys have a problem, they simply fight it out. Girls, on the other hand are much more complex, sly and clever almost, and boy does she show it through the relationships between the girls around the ages of 8/9 years old!!

          Cordelia, having picked up on various signals from her older sisters and from grownups in general, almost turns Elaine into her little project, pushing and prodding her to breaking point to see if she will do anything that Cordelia says. It makes for very interesting reading, and I kept on reading it to see how far Elaine would go before she snapped.

          Very soon, it's hinted that more sinister things happen between Elaine and Cordelia, perhaps a couple of years in the future. Obviously I was enormously intrigued by this and wanted to know how their relationship panned out. I loved the childhood games, the friendships and the relationship between bully and victim were just perfectly told and very real, I can so easily imagine this happening in the playground today as well as remembering certain things from my own childhood with girls at school. Atwood picks up on the sly, clever little ways that little girls have of getting at each other and so I was intrigued and interested enough to finish the book.

          == And the BAD....==

          However - and this is very hard for me to say being a die-hard fan! I did feel a little disappointed towards the end. The story was magnificent, the characters thoroughly entertaining and I enjoyed reading about Elaine from her childhood where she self harmed due to the constant put down by Cordelia and friends, right through to her college years where she gained confidence. BUT. Due to the nature of the story - the relationship between Cordelia and Elaine - I felt towards the conclusion of the book, there would be a revelation that would have a massive impact on the characters and would stay with me as a reader, as there was just this constant undercurrent that something dramatic was about to happen.
          That the novel just teetered off towards the end was just so massively disappointing.

          == Would I recommend? ==

          I have read many reviews on this book, and I have yet to see much negative thought about it, so I guess I am likely to come up against opposition in my disappointment! Despite this, I do have to say that this novel lost a bit of its power for me and although I would recommend this to others (its Atwood, of course!) for the story and the clever and accurate portrayal between victim and school bully, I perhaps would say to Atwood virgins to choose another Atwood novel as a starting point, this is definitely not one of her best in my opinion.

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            31.10.2001 00:46
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            I am studying a book by Margaret Atwood at school (The Handmaids Tale) so I though I would see what any of her other books are like. I found this book in the school library and thought I would give it a go. I then took it on holiday and read three quarters in under a week. The book was written in 1989 and was short-listed for the booker prize. It is divided into 15 main sections and then into minor chapters through the book. With 421 pages it is not a short novel, however that means you have more gripping story before the book ends. So what is the book about? Well Elaine Risley is a painter; she has had a successful career and ends up going to Toronto for a show of her paintings. However Elaine grew up and lived in Toronto so while she is there she has many memories, she has forgotten come back to her, and scare her. We start in modern times (well 1989). At the start of every section we are in present day and then after the first chapter we go into the past. This may seem confusing but you soon get used to it. In The Handmaids Tale, Atwood also uses flashbacks but in that they are not so well structured and so more confusing to the reader. So here we are taken back to Elaine when she moved to Toronto. She has a brother with her and her two parents. She has never lived in one place for a very long time before because her father was a biologist and needed to be on the move. Elaine had never had friends male or female before all this seems new to her. When she moves to her house she make friends with two girls, Carol and Grace. They go to school together and go round each other’s houses. The story is set in post Second World War so there is a great emphasis on what it was like at those times. In the summer Elaine goes away with her parents and when she comes back, she has a new friend, Cordelia. As soon as she becomes friends with Cordelia things change. Elaine’s life is turned upside down as her fri
            ends bully her. This is really brilliantly done, I would know as I was bullied at school. Elaine is weak and an easy victim. She can tell nobody what is happening as they are her friends and she is scared. Cordelia has a power over her that she cannot beat so she is forced to do what they want. She has never had any other friends before so she does not want to walk away. To her this could be normal. I would go on but if I do all of a sudden ill be typing the end and you wont need to read the book. The story carries on through the book from the murder of her brother Stephen and her divorce with her husband Jon. It is really moving and beautifully written. The title may strike you as interesting. A cat’s eye is a type of marble. Elaine plays marbles and her favourite is the cat’s eye. She keeps her cat’s eye with her as she thinks it will help her though what she is going through. Like a baby with its comfort blanket it is Elaine with her cats eye. I didn’t pay for my copy of the book but it costs £6.99 if you are interested. As I have said I am studying another Atwood book, which is also really good (for more info on this book I have written an opinion on it). I would say I like both equally. They have similar writing techniques, so if you have read and liked an Atwood book I would really recommend this. The story lines are not similar at all so don’t think it is a bit of a Catherine Cookson, read a few and you have read them all. By the end of reading this book I didn’t want to put it down. My book and me were Siamese twins, joined at the hands and eyes. Hope I have convinced you to give this a look, because it really is wonderful. There is something for everyone in there. From sad moments, to gross to really comical times, it is a great read. Sara

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              17.09.2001 01:50
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              I am 14, and first heard about this book in my assembly at school. I enjoyed hearing about it and so then decided to read it. This book starts off slowly but once you get past the first 2 or 3 chapters you cannot put it down. It portrays wondefully the relationship between bully and victim. It is written from the victims point of view from when she is a young child to when she is an adult with children of her own. My favourite part of the book was when she was in her teenage years although whether this was because of my age i don't know. The book slows down a bit towards the end but it is still definately a worthwhile read. It stays in your mind long after you have read it, and really makes you think. It shows Elaine's vulnerabilty and Cordelia's power (the victim and bully, respectively) better than any other book of this sort i have read. It won the booker prize and i give it 9 out of 10.

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                24.07.2001 23:13

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                One of the most moving and engrossing novels I've read in quite some time, 'Cat's Eye' tells the story of Elaine, a present day artist visiting Toronto for an exhibition of her work. This visit stirs up memories of her childhood, as she grew up in the city. The novel develops by working chronologically through both her past and present, interweaving the two and demonstrating the profound effects that events from our formative years can have in later life. By far the most dominant figure is that of Cordelia, childhood friend and more importantly bully of Elaine. Even when she is not directly involved, her presence is always felt. The cruel tactics employed by Cordelia and the other girls are all too familiar to a lot of readers I'm sure and the long term effects on the protagonist quite alarming. This is a lengthy novel, but does not drag, I was engrossed throughout and would recommend it to just about anyone.

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                21.06.2001 17:34
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                "Cat's Eye" by Margaret Attwood follows the life of artists Elaine Risely, and the influcences from childhood that continue to haunt her. Writen in first person, from Elaine's perspective, this is a strange tale that will often leaving you wondering if you are getting at the whole truth. Sinister thnigs are implied, but never quite shown, and there is a lot for you to ponder over as you read the book. Elaine's early life comprises of travelling about with her family - her father collects insects for a living. When her father takes a permenant post, the family settle down and Elaine is sent to the local school. Initially, she is delighted by the new friends she makes, but as she is not wealthy, no Christain and just a bit weird, she soon becomes the victim of bullying. The central figure in this bullying is Cordellia, who Elaine adores, and it is this attachment that allows so much pain to be caused. Moments from later life show Cordellia as a failure, a nrevious and troubled wreck who sees Elaine as her only childhood friend. it becomes clear that the torments practised by Cordellia had been learned from an unsympathetic father. In later life, Elaine paints the images of her childhood, taking her revenge on the parents who encouraged their children to be cruel to her, and finally elarning to see them as she shabby hypocrites they clearly were. Cordellia flits through her life like a restless ghost, a somewhat unreal echo of the past that will not go away. The tables turn, and in some ways Elaine becomes the powerful one, the one who is cruel. The book is narrated from the perspective of a mature Elaine, but none the less we can see her perspectives change as the book developes. Her understanding of the world, and ehr growign sense of perspective are fascinating, as are the stories of her love affairs and her developing art - some very funny tales about a femenist exhibition she is involved with. Watching Elaine watching her own offspring is interesting - the fear that they will sufferas she did, or that worst of all, their calm exteriors are due to the fact that they are agressors. She is never sure. There is one thing in this book that marks it out as more than just a tale about bullying. The cruel games played by Elaine's friends result in her being left in an icey gorge one winter's night. It is clear that she could well die, and during these moments she sees an unusual form of a woman, who she believes to be the virgin Mary. This vision lends an air of mystery to the book and becomes one of the driving forces in Elaine's life. If you can find it, there is a particularly good edition of this book which combines it with a selection of short stories. The cover is the same. The short stories include "The Edible Woman" and other Attwood classics.

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                  21.02.2001 02:40
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                  This novel is an in-depth account of Elaine Risley's life, focussing mainly on her childhood, and exploring the effects her past has on the rest of her life . The main themes presented are memories and perception of time, something that becomes more and more abstract as the book progresses. How memories can evolve from destructive to healing forces lies at the forefront of the narrative. A painter from Toronto, Elaine returns to her home town and memories of her childhood filter into her adult life and gradually seem to take over. In particular, the power one of her childhood 'friends', Cordelia currently still holds over her, even though they haven't met since they were children. Cordelia subjected Elaine to subtle, psychological bullying as a child, and destroyed her self-confidence which lasts well into her adult life. Even when, years later, Elaine has a failed suicide bid, the voice in her head prompting her is " the voice of a nine year old child ". In order for Elaine to accept herself in all the roles she plays (mother, daughter, lover, woman, artist) she must first came to terms with and resolve her past. Cat's Eye charts the psychological journey to acceptance of her past through memories and visions, paintings and dreams. What I especially liked about this book, apart from it's comfortable and convincing style, was the way time and memories were presented. At one point Elaine discovers a cats eye marble from her childhood ; "I look into it, and see my life entire". Time is not thought of as a line, but as a dimension; having layers like water or glass which can be looked through, events capable of being seen at any point in one?s life. A quote from Stephen Hawking at the beginning of the novel sets the atmosphere for the thematic role of time throughout the book; "Why do we remember the past, and not the future?"

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                • Product Details

                  Novel exploring the effect of childhood on adulthood and how we think of time.