Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, published in 1988, is a novel about the experience of Elaine Risley, who goes back to her hometown Toronto and confronts (or rather, is haunted by) memories of her family, her childhood bully Cordelia, and her life as an artist. I stumbled upon the book in a second-handed English Bookstore located in Lisbon, a city much like the Toronto Atwood described in the novel: rather peaceful, artistic, yet to some degree, boring and dull. Despite some other tantalizing choices, I eventually decided to take Cat’s Eye home. What hooked me into the book was this paragraph: “But 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. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.” Other than the beauty of Atwood’s writing itself, this metaphor of time seems to reveal something deeper about the narrator, and I could not refuse to continue reading.

The book begins by talking about Elaine’s experience returning to Toronto in preparation of her painting retrospective. As she walks on the street, memories start to emerge. Atwood then starts to reveal her interwoven narrative: Readers are sometimes brought back to Elaine’s childhood, brought back to the present, and back to the past again. From this constant travel of time, we see how Elaine’s present is closely related to her past, and how the present juxtaposes with the past. We could be reading about Elain’s love history as a woman in her twenties, and go right to her understanding of love after a failed marriage.

Cat’s Eye is in no way a consoling book. The interwoven narrative structure gives us a glimpse into the trap Elaine has caught herself in. Throughout the book, her situation hardly had any essential change. She is always caught up in the memories that seem inescapable, and frankly, she seems to live in those memories in parallel with the present. Elaine does not know where she belongs, yet she spends more time dwelling on the past than looking for a way out. This brings me back to the time metaphor at the beginning of the book. Indeed, “you don’t look back along time but down through it, like water.” Elaine is drowned in the water, and “nothing goes away.”