Cat’s Eye is not the first book to which Canada’s most lionized author—of fiction, poetry, and essays—has assigned a feline title. When she was five years old, Margaret Atwood assembled a collection of verses she called Rhyming Cats. More than twenty other books and forty- four years later, Atwood offers her seventh novel, her first since the 1986 best-seller The Handmaid’s Tale. If contemporary narrative seems like the emperor’s new clothes, Atwood’s book, her longest, ought to please the perplexed reader like the cat’s pajamas.
In addition to the customary disclaimer that “any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental,” an insistence that “Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not,” heads the copyright page of Cat’s Eye. Yet, like her author, the young Elaine Risley spent six to seven months each year wandering the Canadian woods with a family that included an entomologist father and an older brother who would also become a scientist. Many of the most affecting passages in Cat’s Eye are evocations of the family’s idyllic vagabondage in the wilds before settling down in Toronto. When their fathers accepted professorships at the University of Toronto, Margaret and Elaine moved to the Ontario city. Twice married, both moved away from Toronto but returned in the 1980’s. All the rest is literature.
Like Alison Lurie’s The Truth About Lorin Jones (1988), Cat’s Eye is a Bildungsroman and Kunstleroman whose focus is the life of a woman painter. After an absence of two decades, Elaine Risley returns to Toronto for the opening of her first solo retrospective, at a trendy gallery called Sub-Versions. She accepts an invitation to stay at the studio of her Bohemian first husband, Jon. The canvases on the wall of Sub-Versions, like the volumes in Atwood’s bibliography, recapitulate the experiences of a woman whom optimism more than demographics enables to assert:
“This is the middle of my life.”
Cat’s Eye, which adopts Elaine’s eye- view, begins in the middle of things, flashing back to moments from her childhood and forward to her encounters in contemporary Toronto. Her life is not so much plotted as meditated, in strikingly nonchronological fashion. Stephen W. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988) provides an epigraph to Cat’s Eye, and Elaine’s astrophysicist brother, also named Stephen, provides a theory of time that accounts for the spiral form and the desperate ambitions of the novel. “Time is not a line but a dimension,” he contends, and Elaine, for whom everything is “drenched in time,” begins to see the days of her life as “a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another.” Her visit to Toronto provides the occasion for an attempt at personal clarification.
“When we gaze at the night sky,” lectures Stephen,we are looking at fragments of the past. Not only in the sense that the stars as we see them are echoes of events that occurred light-years distant in time and space: everything up there and indeed everything down here is a fossil, a...
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