The Whiteness of Bones
As a novelist, Margaret Atwood never seems out of control. Whatever rage or disappointment may smolder underneath, the surfaces of her fiction are unusually cool and dry. The daughter of an entomologist, she must have absorbed from an early age the high value attached to precision, detachment, and honesty in the investigation of the living and the dissection of the dead. At the same time, she seems to have been powerfully struck by the discrepancy between an allegiance to such virtues and the messiness of ordinary life. Formidably intelligent and observant, she has focused her unblinking scrutiny upon the habits, the attitudes, and especially the self-deceptions of the North American—specifically, Anglo-Canadian—middle class and its bohemian offshoots during the past few decades. She skewers the pretensions of bad art and bad faith when she encounters them. Inevitably, she has participated in the controversies over feminism, though she is not a reflexive feminist. In her most widely read but least typical novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), she created a chilling dystopia drawn from the religious revivalism and antifemale backlash that she perceived, or feared, in the United States of the Reagan era.
Now, in her seventh and longest novel, Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood has returned to the Canadian world in which she grew up. It is an intensely personal novel, much of which reads like barely mediated autobiography. There is no real plot—only a situation that provides the excuse for a search into the past. A fiftyish painter of some reputation, Elaine Risley, returns to her native Toronto after living for a number of years with her second husband in Vancouver. The occasion is a retrospective of her work at a gallery called Sub-Versions in a formerly rundown section of the city that is fast being “reclaimed.” As Elaine goes about the preparations for her opening, she finds herself thinking about her closest childhood friend (and enemy), a girl called Cordelia. The childhood memories quickly take over the novel, reducing the action in the present to occasional interruptions of a slow, chronological unfolding of the past.
The earliest of Elaine’s memories are of the north, woods, where she and her brother Stephen led a happy, nomadic life in the 1940s while her father, an entomologist, conducted his research on tent caterpillars. Margaret Atwood has always excelled in her descriptions of outdoor life, and this section contains some of the most precise and evocative writing in Cat’s Eye.
He hits the tree trunk with the back of his ax. The tree shakes; leaves and twigs and caterpillars patter down, bouncing off his gray felt hat, hitting the tarpaulin. Stephen and I crouch, picking up the caterpillars, which are blue-striped, and velvety and cool, like the muzzles of dogs. We put them into the collecting bottles filled with pale alcohol. We watch them twist and sink.
My father looks at the harvest of caterpillars as if he’s grown them himself. He examines the chewed leaves. “A …