Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

14 Books That Are Weird In A Good Way

I found myself trying to recommend one of the books on this list the other day, and all I could come up with was: “it’s weird… but in a good way”. It got me to thinking about how many books on my shelves could be slotted into that category. Of course, when you’re crafting a list of books that fit not one, but two subjective adjectives (in this case, “good” and “weird”), you risk confusing or infuriating a lot of people – but I like to live on the edge. So here’s a list of books that are weird in a good way, according to me.

14 Books That Are Weird In A Good Way - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender

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Willful Creatures is a collection of fifteen short stories, divided into three parts. The stories are kind-of magical realism, kind-of fantasy, kind-of absurdist – in other words, weird in a good way. Bender uses the bizarre and surreal – a boy with keys where his fingers should be, a family with pumpkins for heads dealing with the arrival of a son with an iron for a head instead, miniature humans kept as pets – to talk about the human condition. It’s the kind of book that you can read all in one sitting, but that will linger with you for a long time. Read my full review of Willful Creatures here.

Sadvertising by Ennis Ćehić

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In Sadvertising, Ennis Ćehić draws upon real-life pop culture moments (e.g., Kendall Jenner’s infamously disastrous Pepsi ad campaign), pervasive technologies (e.g., digital assistants and iPhones), and his own career in the advertising industry to craft stories that are short, sharp, and full to the brim with existential dread. It’s a great collection, a commendable collection, right up until the very last story (“Meta Ennis Part III”), when it levels up to audacious and brilliant. This is the kind of weird-in-a-good-way book you’ll be gushing about for days. Read my full review of Sadvertising here.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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Susanna Clarke is kind of the queen of books that are weird in a good way – if only she wrote more of them! Piranesi was her long, long awaited follow-up to her debut fantasy epic, and no one really knew what to expect. All the blurb tells the reader is that the principal character lives in a house, and perhaps he always has. In a series of notebooks, he describes a world of wonders, endless labyrinths and thousands of statues and a weather system of rising tides. The obvious question is: how did he get there? But before long, other questions emerge: is there someone else in the house? Is Piranesi’s simple life of solitude in danger? Read my full review of Piranesi here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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Girl, Woman, Other contains the stories of twelve people – “mostly women, mostly black” – who live in Britain and vary greatly in circumstances. It’s not a linear narrative, more like a series of connected biographical vignettes that span decades and multiple geographies. Each episode is connected to another in some way. Some of the characters are mother/daughter pairs, some are friends, some don’t even realise that they’re connected. If that’s not weird-but-good enough, Bernardine Evaristo’s style straddles the line between prose and poetry, with strange line breaks giving sentences unusual emphasis and shifting their meaning. Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.

Under The Skin by Michel Faber

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Something strange is unfolding on the roads of northern Scotland. In Under The Skin, Michel Faber feeds the reader the facts of the story gradually. At first, the protagonist – Isserley – seems like a regular woman… albeit, one who gets her kicks having sex with male hitchhikers. Then, she starts to seem like she might enjoy it a bit too much. Is she a sex addict? Or maybe she’s murdering them. Or maybe she’s luring them to a farm so that someone else can murder them. Wait, what the hell is going on here? (You get the idea.) This book is weird in a good way, as long as you’ve got a strong stomach. Read my full review of Under The Skin here.

Mammoth by Chris Flynn

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The premise of Mammoth is bold – ludicrous even. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s weird in the best possible way. On the night before the New York Natural History Auction, a thirteen-thousand year old mammoth tells the (startlingly accurate) story of his life, death, and resurrection as a fossil. Through this unique perspective, Flynn is able to draw our attention to the entrenched racism and sexism that has underwritten our understanding of natural history, not to mention the inherent problems of turning nature into a spectacle in the name of capitalism. Read my full review of Mammoth here.

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

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Grady Hendrix has made a whole career out of both reading and writing books that are weird in a good way. Horrorstor is his first independent foray into the world of horror-comedy (well, the earliest one still in print anyway), and it has a genius conceit: haunted IKEA. Freaky, right? It’s surprisingly scary and gruesome. You’ll never be able to shop at IKEA again without a chill running down your spine (if you ever could before, that is). Hendrix totally nails the tone, the disconcerting sense of disorientation that overtakes us whenever we cross the threshold of one of those places. Read my full review of Horrorstor here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The weird-in-a-good-way vibe of The Vegetarian starts with the very first line: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Isn’t that just… chef’s kiss? It’s the story of Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. Ironically, the story itself actually says very little about the philosophy of vegetarianism or why one might wish to eschew meat from their diet; instead, it’s about a woman’s self-actualisation in a society that refuses to let her live her truth. Read my full review of The Vegetarian here.

Pink Mountain On Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau

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If the title of Pink Mountain On Locust Island doesn’t convince you it’s a book that’s weird in a good way, I don’t know what will! It’s a story of “hazily surreal vignettes [that] conjure a multifaceted world of philosophical angst and lackadaisical violence”. The reader follows fifteen-year-old Monk as she falls in love with an artist online, then finds herself shunted to the sidelines of their relationship as her “grumpy brown couch” dad becomes obsessed with his artwork. Don’t let the youth of the protagonist (or the author, come to that) mislead you: this isn’t a sweet coming-of-age young adult novel, but a spiky contemporary take on classic noir.

Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl - Andrea Lawlor - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl will challenge everything you think you know about sex and gender fluidity. The titular character, Paul, is (among other things) a shapeshifter, capable of presenting themselves to the world any way they choose. This magical realism merges seamlessly with the politics, queer theory, and throbbing ’90s soundtrack. As Paul slides between relationships, communities, and gender presentations, they’re forced to confront the vulnerability that comes with connection and intimacy. Even if it’s weird in a way that’s not good for you personally, you’ll probably (re)discover some great music, at least.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as saturated as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable, but Carmen Maria Machado has indeed done it with In The Dream House. It turns out books don’t have to be fictional to be weird in a good way. This is a Rubik’s cube of a book, examining the subject – a formative but abusive relationship with a woman Machado only refers to as ‘the woman in the Dream House’ – from every possible angle, twisting and turning upon itself until all the edges line up. Some of the chapters are fragments, some are longer recollections, some mine the depths of pop culture and literature and art and critical theory in search of representation. Read my full review of In The Dream House here.

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

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Ottessa Moshfegh is another contemporary writer with a catalogue full of books that are weird in a good way – none more so than Lapvona. A disabled shepherd boy living in a medieval fiefdom ravaged by natural disasters finds himself an unlikely replacement for the murdered son of a tyrannical lord, but it’s not enough to replace the love he imagines for his mutilated mother (whom he was told died in childbirth). It’s a guttural story about the most grim and grotesque aspects of human nature. It’s every bit as horrifying as it sounds (and then some), with moments of insight so searing and quotable it’s like looking into the sun. Read my full review of Lapvona here.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What’s it like to be a misfit in a society that values conformity above all else? You’ll find out in Convenience Store Woman. Keiko has known since childhood that she was “different”, but she learned early on that expressing herself in ways that feel natural to her does not go down well. Her peers recoil from her and her family worries that she’ll never “fit in”. Everyone’s relieved when, aged 18, she takes a “normal” job in a convenience store – including Keiko. The store provides an employee manual of strict protocols for interaction that she finds deeply comforting. Eighteen years later, though, the illusion of normality is starting to wear thin, and that’s when things get weird (in a good way). Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

The Vitals by Tracy Sorensen

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Tracy Sorensen is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation (yes, the same one that Angelina Jolie has), and it manifested as peritoneal cancer in 2010. She underwent treatment, and thankfully went into remission for eight years. Her memoir, though, isn’t really about that, largely because of the unique perspective from which she writes. The Vitals is narrated by (get this) her internal organs. Yes, it’s high-concept, but go with it! Through this wildly inventive if weird (in a good way) perspective, Sorensen reveals the ways in which the body can be ravaged by invaders, and the physicality of the fight to defeat them. Read my full review of The Vitals here.

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris

Every David Sedaris book is like a treat for me. I hoard them like chocolates in a secret corner of the fridge, and pull them out when I need something sinful and delicious. My latest indulgence is Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, his collection of narrative essays from 2013.

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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It won’t come as any surprise to fellow fans of Sedaris that Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls contains very little about the titular diabetes, or owls. The title was taken from a conversation he had with a reader at a book signing, who asked him to inscribe one of his books with something along the lines of ‘explore your inner feelings’. Sedaris said: “I never write what people ask me, so I said ‘I’ll keep the word explore’, and I wrote ‘let’s explore diabetes with owls,’.” There you have it.

The essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls aren’t closely tied to a particular theme or servicing any overarching narrative. Rather, there’s a few threads that loosely connect a few of them, more like a mind map than a straight line through a story.

Sedaris’s voice remains as singular as ever, though – curious, awkward, wry, self-deprecating, at times angry, mostly baffled. He waxes rhapsodic about his relationship with his French orthodontist, he overcomes his fear to hand-feed a kookaburra at a regional Australian cafe, he grumbles about the futile but irresistible task of cleaning rubbish from the English countryside, and he wonders what exactly it is about him that gives a taxidermy shop attendant the (correct) impression that he’d like to see human remains they keep out the back.

A couple of motifs appear multiple times throughout. Many of the essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls were written or set during the early Obama years, for instance, so quite a few of them reference the 2008 election and the world’s fascination with the American political side-show. Sedaris’s father is also a recurring character, at times an menacing presence in the family home and at others an object of fun. Any other writer might struggle to communicate to the reader that a man who rarely wears pants inside the house can intimidate a child, but Sedaris isn’t just any writer. Without ever explaining it explicitly, Sedaris impresses upon us his lifelong struggle to satisfy his father – only to delightfully resolve the tension by finally conceding to his father’s demands that he get a colonoscopy, which makes the old man happy.

My love for Sedaris is so great that even the cruelest subject matter doesn’t put me off his writing. In Loggerheads, he describes a disastrous childhood experiment keeping captured baby sea turtles in a bedroom aquarium, despite knowing nothing about them (not even what they ate). The sea turtles met an unfortunate end, which would be enough to put me off any other essayist, but Sedaris has engendered enough goodwill that I can forgive it.

In that vein, delicate readers might be put out by some of what I’d diplomatically refer to as some cultural insensitivity in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – in the chapter about examining a taxidermied Congolese Pygmy for instance, or the one about food and hygiene habits in China. It’s dicey ground, but I like to assume the best of intentions in Sedaris and I hope that other readers can do the same.

Really, the slightly sour note in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a layout issue more than anything else. Sedaris includes comedic fictional monologues throughout the collection, which he explains in the foreword, but they’re not flagged as such in text. So, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls led to frequent experiences of whiplash, realising that Sedaris was writing in character and not, in fact, relating a story about being a teenage girl who gets ripped off on a school trip to England or a woman who is duped by her gay son into wearing a Big Proud Dyke t-shirt to a conservative rally. These stories are funny, and no doubt fun for Sedaris to write, but I could’ve done without them – or at least would have preferred they be signposted a bit better.

All told, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was another wicked delight, and I’m already eagerly anticipating my next treat from Sedaris.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls:

  • “A turd left floating in a toilet is far funnier than one mans take on politics in the US.” – amlphx
  • “As a resident of the south who got to go to one of his book signings it now makes me re-evaluate whether or not he actually wanted to be there or secretly was hating our guts cause we might be conservative.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Do you really want to read about the taxidermist who used a human head as his subject, for example, or about his sisters’ reactions to some pervert exposing himself? In two words, this book is childish trash.” – Spot
  • “Too mean-spirited and kind of snobby and elitist – like this guy has the monopoly on good taste. Get over yourself.” – Anonymous
  • “Reading this was like going to your favorite restaurant, ordering a lobster and having the waiter lift the lid of the serving dish to reveal a dead rat. I tried three time to read this mound of steaming crap.” – Tom Hemeon

Pheasants Nest – Louise Milligan

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Louise Milligan one of Australia’s bravest, most committed journalists, and somehow – in between uncovering the lies and crimes of Cardinal George Pell, and exposing the horrendous secondary trauma experienced by victims coming forward – she’s found the time to write her first ever work of fiction, Pheasants Nest. The wonderful team at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Firstly, and most importantly: the absence of an apostrophe in the title is not an error. It’s deliberate, and addressed in the first chapter.

Now, on to the story: Milligan doesn’t stray too far from the old maxim of writing what you know. Pheasants Nest is “a stunning and surprising thriller” about a journalist who is kidnapped, and finds herself living out the worst-case-scenarios she reports on the news.

If you didn’t already know that Milligan is a journalist, you would from the prose in Pheasants Nest. It reads a lot like an extra long-form narrative report, in tone and style. A lot of the story is revealed through memories and flash-backs, but Milligan does an excellent job at keeping the story pacy and not drawing it out unnecessarily.

While I can’t speak to the accuracy of its depiction of the work of journalists or the experiences of kidnapping victims, I can confirm that Pheasants Nest gets the ‘small town’ feel of Australia exactly right. Everyone knows someone who knows someone, and in this story it feels very natural and relatable, rather than conveniently coincidental or contrived.

As much as the world needs Milligan’s investigative journalism, I selfishly hope she keeps writing fiction. Pheasants Nest portends great things to come.

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Read Pheasants Nest on audiobook via Libro.fm here. (affiliate link)

10 Books Set In Canada

I’ve noticed a completely unintentional trend in some of my reading of late: I’ve been coming across a lot of five-star bangers from Canada! Random, but it’s a noticeable pattern. I’ve never visited the Great White North myself (of course, it’s on my ‘one day’ list), but I feel like I have thanks to these ten brilliant books set in Canada.

10 Books Set In Canada - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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A Tale For The Time Being has a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. The story takes some weird detours into metaphysics and philosophy, but it still comes to a satisfying (though pleasingly not saccharine) conclusion. Read my full review of A Tale For The Time Being here.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

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Alias Grace is the fictionalised story of the real life and crimes of Canadian woman Grace Marks. She and another servant in the same household, James McDermott, were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (slash secret lover) Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was sentenced to death and hanged, while Marks’s death sentence was commuted. Was she actually guilty, or was she wrongfully imprisoned? It’s a fascinating and compelling work of historical fiction, one that tells us just as much about Canadian society and gender roles at the time as it does Grace’s crimes. Read my full review of Alias Grace here.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

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Yes, maybe it’s cheating to have two Margaret Atwood novels in a list of books set in Canada, but she is the country’s most renowned literary export. (Atwood’s work also diverges so dramatically, thematically and chronologically, it really feels like you’re reading a different author altogether sometimes.) Cat’s Eye is set in Toronto, the Canadian city where artist Elaine Risley grew up. She returns to it as an adult, for a retrospective of her work, and she’s thrown back to her memories of a formative friendship with her cruelest bully.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

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Feel like wandering the hills of the Great Lakes region in a post-apocalyptic future, watching a troupe of actors perform Shakespeare and dodge the deadly flu pandemic? Then pick up Station Eleven. It might still be a bit “too soon” for some readers (Emily St John Mandel was eerily prescient, publishing this one six years before COVID hit), but if you can set aside those qualms, it’s an almost comforting read. Even in the darkest, starkest times, against the most villainous and insurmountable of threats, people will keep art and humanity alive.

The Department Of Rare Books And Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk

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Deep in the dusty stacks of a university library in Toronto, Liesl Weiss works quietly in the The Department Of Rare Books And Special Collections (from which the book takes its name). When she’s unexpectedly thrust into her boss’s job, she discovers a terrifying secret: the library’s prize manuscript is missing. Why doesn’t anyone seem to care? And why has one of her colleagues gone missing? She’s going to find the answers, and they’re going to shake the foundations on which she’s built everything she knows. This book is “a rare treat for booklovers”, a high-stakes mystery with bookish types at its heart.

The Strangers by Katherena Vermette

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The Strangers is “a searing exploration of race, class, inherited trauma, and matrilineal bonds that – despite everything – refuse to be broken”. Katherena Vermette is a Red River Métis (Michif) writer, from the heart of Métis nation in Canada, and her heritage permeates this incredible First Nations novel. The story is told in five parts, and despite very dark subject matter (and Vermette’s talent for stark realism), it’s a propulsive and pensive read. Read my full review of The Strangers here.

The Catch by Amy Lea

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When a floundering fashion influencer discovers that her all-expenses-paid vacation at a Canadian resort isn’t booked for the week she arrived, she has no choice but to take up residence at the only AirBNB available in a small fishing village nearby. Who could’ve guessed that in that ramshackle inn, she’d find the man she’d be calling her fiance just a few days later? Well, anyone who’s read one of Amy Lea’s novels, that’s who. The Catch is a romance that manages to be both swoony and spicy, the perfect escapist read. Read my full review of The Catch here.

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead - Emily Austin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead is perhaps less explicitly Canadian than other books set in Canada on this list, but I can’t resist any opportunity to hype it up. It’s a hilariously deadpan, macabre-meets-comedy read about being at war with your own mind. Gilda can’t stop thinking about death (given the state of the world, it’s hard to blame her). In desperation, she responds to a flyer for free therapy from her local church – but instead of healed, she finds herself installed as their new receptionist. For a queer atheist with intense anxiety, this presents many problems. Her anxious apathy and her unsentimental delivery make an otherwise-dark story a laugh-out-loud relatable read. Read my full review of Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead here.

The Call Of The Wild by Jack London

The Call Of The Wild - Jack London - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll say this right at the outset: do not go into The Call Of The Wild thinking it’s a heart-warming tale about a puppy who goes camping in the Yukon. It’s one of the most iconic books set in Canada, but it baffles me how it ever got to be, given the amount of dog-related violence and death in these pages. I guess other fans of Canadian literature are just less squeamish than I am? If you can look past the blood and cruelty, you’ll find yourself transported to the wildest landscapes of Canada, shivering in the snow at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. Read my full review of The Call Of The Wild here.

Out On A Limb by Hannah Bonam-Young

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Do you ever read a book and get the strong sense that the author wrote the book that they needed to read? That’s how you’ll feel with Out On A Limb. Canadian writer Hannah Bonam-Young explains in her introductory author’s note that she lives with a limb difference, and it gave her all kinds of doubts about becoming a mother. So, she wrote the story of a young Ontario woman with a limb difference who falls pregnant, and has to navigate disability, pregnancy, and falling in love with her one night stand, all at once. It’s fun, it’s Canadian, and even if you hate the accidental pregnancy trope in romance, you’re sure to find yourself charmed by it in this case.

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

If there’s one thing you should know about Margaret Atwood, it’s that the woman’s got range. She does dystopian worlds, she does historical fiction, she does poetry – and, in Cat’s Eye, she does coming-of-age literary fiction. This is a story about the subtle cruelty of girlhood and the bitterness of aging, told through the ebbs and flows of a friendship between bully and victim.

Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Through a series of memories and recollections, the story unfolds across mid-20th century Canada (from World War II to the late ’80s). It’s a bit of a throwback, really; thanks to social media, we no longer find ourselves middle-aged and wondering how our childhood bullies turned out. We can see for ourselves after a couple of late-night wines, from the privacy of our own couch.

So, have some sympathy for Elaine – an embittered artist returning to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her work, to be shown at a local gallery. Cat’s Eye begins with her re-familiarising herself with the area, which causes her to think back to her childhood. Her family settled in the Canadian city when she was eight years old, after years of itinerant living while her father studied bugs (yeah, seriously). She became fast friends with two girls from her school, but their circle was broken wide open with the arrival of a new girl – Cordelia.

Cordelia (a villain’s name if I’ve ever heard one!) permanently alters the dynamic of the group. She’s cruel in the subtle way that only pre-teen girls can be, with her bullying disguised as friendship. She masterfully destroys Elaine’s self-esteem, aligning the others against her, and it all culminates in the “friends” leaving Elaine to freeze to death in a spooky snowy ravine.

That incident is enough to make Elaine snap. She breaks away from the toxic circle and makes new friends, slowly rebuilding the confidence that Cordelia shattered. You’d think this might be the ‘happy ending’ of Cat’s Eye, and in any other author’s hands it might have been, but Atwood has plenty more in store for the reader. We’re about halfway through the book at this point.

I started reading faster at this point, figuring that Cat’s Eye was building up to an encounter with Cordelia in adulthood. Elaine would realise that it’s all in the past, or that Cordelia was the true victim, or some other trite nonsense, and they’d all go on their merry way. Once again: NOPE! Atwood won’t let us off that easily (but I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the rest).

Cat’s Eye is so sharp, and so keenly felt, that it’s easy to imagine it’s at least partly autobiographical. Atwood is, after all, the daughter of an entomologist, and famously Canadian. She has generally declined to answer any questions about the similarities between her and Elaine, though. She’s only said that she wrote the book in the ’80s, drawing upon her perspective on her daughter’s pre-teen friendships and the social dynamics of the groups that she saw play out as a parent.

Cat’s Eye isn’t exactly a book that I’d rave about, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it or that it’s not worth reading. I’d wager that it’s probably of most interest to the mothers of girls, though perhaps it’s relevance is stretched a bit thin with Gen Alpha (who are bullying each other through their smart watches or meta-glasses now, or holographs, who knows).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cat’s Eye:

  • “Nine year old girl is bullied by her three “best friends”.
    She never gets over it.
    The end.” – S. Remi
  • “Woman having bummer life recalls her bummer childhood in which she was bullied by sadistic and twisted friends. Sounds more interesting than it was. Looking for bleak? Try this.” – IMO
  • “Childhood is hard. Bad things happen. Dwelling on your terrible friends, superficial relationships, and general detachment from your own childhood and twenties when you’re fifty isn’t profound, it’s whiny.” – ArtBoy!
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