Of course, the first I read of Margaret Atwood was her infamous and beautifully alluring/saddening Handmaid’s Tale; a dystopian tale of racism, gender roles, and sexuality. And so I wasn’t sure how I felt picking up another novel by her; while I really enjoyed Handmaid’s Tale, it’s certainly not a book you would read for fun or to put a smile upon one’s face. Although; that being said I did just finish reading American Psycho.
Anyhow, Cat’s Eye is a fictional memoir of a girl, Elaine, as an adult going to the gallery opening of her latest art exhibit in the town that she grew up in. The POV of the novel oscillates, then, between her present, more cynical self, and her past, more elusive and dreamy self; as a young girl growing up. There is of course ties between the two; one cannot go back to a place that had been home for so long without remembering what we’ve left behind. Even though I hate the city of Seattle, when I went back at the beginning of the summer it was with begrudging admiration that I remembered just how beautiful of a place it could be. And it wasn’t Seattle as a whole; it was little things; things that I had forgotten about. Like the unique smell of rain, mud, and seawater that comes off the Puget Sound early in the morning. I missed pale skin exposed to newly minted sunshine; and shorts when it’s still 50 degrees. I missed rhododendron bushes and evergreens; soft needles under my feet and the peaceful smell of Seattle dirt. I hadn’t missed any of that until I revisited Washington.
And that is the feeling of this entire book; a fragmented revelation to Elaine about her past memories; recalling tiny miniscule details without any context or base, and piecing them back together into a cohesive story about a young girl growing up in opaque dream-scapes and bitterly buried nightmares. Elaine remembers her family, her friends, the people who cared about her, and of course, the people who bullied her, and slowly she constructs her history; culminating in her art exhibit; a history of herself; and all of a sudden those strange, post-modern paintings come to life for us (even though we’re reading and not seeing) in a way that they never could without her memories.
In various ways we all have that; a particular smell that reminds us of going to grandma’s house, or all of a sudden we taste something that we haven’t eaten in years; and we sit there tonguing the top of our mouths while we try to remember what particular dish could taste that good. Because memory comes and goes; there’s triggers and stimuli, there are things that set us off and we don’t even know about it. Which is why reading Cat’s Eye reminded me so much of my own childhood, which was so very, very different from Elaine’s.
Reading this also reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend several weeks ago; in which we discussed a book called, A Child called IT a true memoir from the man who, at the time, was the victim of one of the most violent and cruel cases of child abuse in California history. We were discussing not only how hard it was for us to read it; but we were comparing how each of us had read it; Janet, as an adult, and I, as a child who was barely older than the boy in the book. Because, for some reason, despite it’s graphic nature, that book is generally available to small children to read, which I personally believe is both good (I don’t ever believe in keeping what is true out of the hands of children) but also somewhat alarming. And thus, we discussed our perceptions and memories of reading; Janet with a learned horror and understanding, whilst I read with childish curiosity, and disbelief, because as a child I couldn’t believe that someone, especially a mother, could do that to her own child. It just didn’t make sense in my little black/white moral world. And so I blocked out my memory of reading that book; until Janet and I had our conversation and it came flooding back in horrifying, colorful detail.
That’s what memory is like; that’s what looking through the world, like you would through a Cat’s Eye, is like.