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!