Rereading Cat’s Eye while rereading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Margaret Atwood emphasized the parallels between the narrator’s and author’s childhoods.

I was a teenager when I read Cat’s Eye for the first time; I would have had no idea that Elaine’s childhood of lakes and insects was Peggy’s childhood too.

As a young reader, I also wouldn’t have understood the connection between the criticisms levied by the fictional interviewer who’s covering grown-up Elaine’s art show—and seeking pullquotes to represent a “good feminist” artis—and the ongoing debates that Margaret Atwood has been cast in, by virtue of being a “celebrity feminist” from the 1980s onward.

(This is something that’s discussed in Lennie Goodings’ memoir about working at Virago Publishing and the important role that Atwood’s early fiction played in funding that feminist press. Something that’s arisen in Canadian media in recent years, when women here were reminded once again that feminism is not a single vision and is not necessarily synonymous with equality—it depends on the woman, it depends on the feminist.)

One thing that stood out to me as a young reader, which still resonates with me now, is the mysterious nature of girlhood. I could relate to young Elaine’s sense of being on the outside looking in.

“I began to want things I’ve never wanted before: braids, a dressing-gown, a purse of my own. Something is unfolding, being revealed to me. I see that there’s a whole world of girls and their doings that has been unknown to me, and that I can be part of it without making any effort at all. I don’t have to keep up with anyone, run as fast, aim as well, make loud explosive noises, decode messages, die on cue. I don’t have to think about whether I’ve done these things well, as well as a boy. All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying pans out of the Eaton’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say I’ve done it badly. Partly this is a relief.”

As a young reader, the cruelty of young girls in this story rang true for me. As a young woman, reading this novel for the first time, I believed that was behind me; it hadn’t occurred to me that these young girls grew up too.

That’s what stands out to me in this reading: women exercise an equal capacity to injure and bruise. While it’s true that rates of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse put more women at risk than men, that doesn’t mean that women are incapable of inflicting harm.

In Cat’s Eye, the women have power and agency; they can be victimized and they can victimize others. It’s affording a type of equality that doesn’t jive with everyone’s understanding of feminism, with those readers who would prefer to see (and have others see) the softer side of sisterhood. This is true, too, in The Robber Bride. And Alias Grace. And, well, going further would be unnecessarily spoilery (whereas these stories are retellings of a sort, so their originals may already be familiar).

So, I wasn’t peering closely at the autobiographical elements or the examination of feminism when I first read Cat’s Eye. I also didn’t recognize the elements of craft at work.

There are clues dropped along the trails through the ravines of this novel, hints about how this story is structured. They’re not packaged in textboxes; readers who just want to focus on Elaine-then and Elaine-now can read simply for story (which is what I must’ve done on my first reading, for sure).

Here’s a passage about the illustrations of insects and the like, pictures that young Elaine studies when her family is up north, where her father observes creatures in their natural environment and Elaine’s mother does basically all the same things her father does, even wearing the same kinds of clothing:

“Some of them are in section, which means they’re cut open so you can see what’s inside them: tunnels, branches, bulbs and delicate filaments. I like this kind the best.”

Atwood never steps outside the story; this is a reasonable comment that young Elaine might make about these diagrams, and it serves a purpose, establishes character and elaborates on the setting—a wilder part of the world than many young girls would inhabit in fiction set in the twentieth-century’s first half.

But it also reveals a mechanism at work, in that the novel can be viewed as a series of cross-sections as well. (All these short chapters, often broken down within as well, rich scenes but with little tissue between them. This might be the Atwood novel that I read most quickly; I feel like I race through it, saying “just one more”.)

In contrast, there is a glimpse of grown-up Elaine’s view of the world; she, as an artist, has a different perspective. “The lamps in people’s houses cast a yellowish light, not cold and greenish but a buttery dim yellow with a tinge of brown. The colours of things in houses have darkness mixed into them: maroon, mushroom beige, a muted green, a dusty rose. These colours look a little dirty, like the squares in a paint box when you forget to rinse the brush.”

That’s interesting, when it comes to characterization. But there’s a structural side to this contrast as well. Consider the existence of these two perspectives, then-Elaine and now-Elaine, in this description of Elaine’s brother’s jar of marbles, which are the cat’s eyes of the title.

“He takes it down into the ravine somewhere, in under the wooden bridge, and buries it. Then he makes an elaborate treasure map of where it’s buried, puts it in another jar, and buries that one too. He tells me he’s done these things but he doesn’t say why, or where the jars are buried.”

So, here we have a jar filled with cat’s eye marbles: slips of colour inside glass (the marble) and inside glass again (the jar), with instructions in yet another jar (buried a distance away).

Like we have the story of Elaine in the past, the story of Elaine in the present, and the story of present-day Elaine reflecting on her past, with each of these separate and distinct, but related.

Like we have Elaine admiring the cross-sections but perceiving unrinsed darknesses, while she stays in the apartment of an absent friend, preparing to attend this exhibition.

Rereading Cat’s Eye was a pleasure; in many ways, it felt like a fresh read, but only because when I hold the marble up to the light, a different array of colours catches the light, now that decades have passed between this and my first reading.

What’s the last book you took time to reread? Is this a book you’ve read, whether once or many times?