What fills our lives? We can’t manage without the grand abstractions of belief or love, but in the end they mostly come down to the engrossing triviality of our daily routines. What we usually do is keep things going. True for everyone: but especially true, or so it has seemed, for women. The really basic questions – what we are to eat today, what will happen to the children – have always been for women to answer. It has become clear that women’s novels can answer them, too.
Margaret Atwood knows all about the harassing particularities of family life, and has written about them with a memorable edge of resentment. Her high standing is largely derived from the way in which she has pushed these acerbically intimate perceptions into the realm of the public and the political. Until now, the topicality of her writing has grown out of her sense of shared female grievance – the iniquities of men, the inadequacies of women. Her relations with feminists have always been ambivalent, but it is the force of feminism that has given her writing its angry resolution. This has brought a dangerous kind of success. Injured women have been too predictably the staple of her fiction. Suffering is the novelist’s business, but the note of complaint, no matter how justified, has threatened to impose its own caustic limitations on her work. Atwood is too self-aware not to be alert to the risk. The Handmaid’s Tale attempted the scale of prophecy, a traditionally potent route for the disaffected.Now Cat’s Eye turns from an imagined future to the recollected past, a Canadian childhood of the Forties and Fifties.
But the past is remembered from a precisely realised present. Elaine Risley, whose story this is, is a prominent artist, returning to Toronto, where she grew up, for her first retrospective. Sceptically surveying the Eighties gloss which has transformed the city of her youth, she broods on the history of her life and the lives of the people she knew. The women’s movement is one among the many things that changed her, part of a rounded pattern of progression, to be contemplated like the child’s marble from which the novel takes its name. Atwood’s latest, largest and most assured novel solidly places itself in the landscape of a personal post-feminism. It does so reflectively, and not without sadness – many will miss the sour bite of her earlier work. Cat’s Eye is a riper, cooler book than anything she has previously written. It is preoccupied with growing-up, but also with growing old. Among the lost intensities mourned in this novel is the loss of hatred. Atwood’s preternatural sensitivity to the latest cultural currents has always been one of the best reasons for keeping up with her work. It may be that histories of the novel yet to be written will see this as one of the first to look back in tranquillity on the work of feminism. To look back on it, but not down on it – Cat’s Eye knows itself to be founded on what feminism has done. In the lives of others, elsewhere, a transformed movement continues to make its urgent and necessary claims. But the young have their own pictures of the past, and a fresh generation of feminists calls for new heroines. Elaine is interviewed by an aspiring journalist looking for a pioneer: ‘What I have to say is not altogether what she wants to hear. She’d prefer stories of outrage, although she’d be unlikely to tell them about herself, she’s too young. Still, people my age are supposed to have stories of outrage; at least insult, at least putdown.’ Such stories are not lacking in Elaine’s history, but they no longer interest her much. The novel briefly sparks into irritation as she refuses to co-operate. Atwood’s fiction has come to assert the privilege of its eminence. Youthful rebellion is no longer her territory. The battles are still to be fought, the standards handed on, but she has earned the victories she needed. The right to form a woman’s life into a work of fiction is taken for granted, a simple and legitimate choice rather than an act of aggression. Yet the implications of Elaine Risley’s remembrance are as interrogatively polemical as ever. Atwood returns to old concerns with a new voice, calmly reminiscent, taking her time. Writing out of her own childhood, she asks what children are. How did we turn into grown women and men? What have we learned? What can we hope to give our children?
Atwood’s art has always been redeemed by its daring, its changefulness and its exactitude. She was raised in a family of practising scientists and each of her various novels has something of the nature of meticulously conducted experiment, founded on accurate observation and motivated by the drive to prove a hypothesis. Here she speculates on the association between parallel pursuits – science and art. Elaine is a painter; she might as easily have been a scientist, like her father (an entomologist) or her brother Stephen (an astrophysicist). She shares her father’s despairing ecological awareness, together with her brother’s logically detached interest in the nature of time. Both concerns are evoked in childhood memories of strenuous field trips in the Canadian wilderness and of her brother (Atwood’s first likeable man) in a ravelling maroon sweater, musing on time as a dimension: ‘Stephen says time is not a line.’ But these graphic roots in things past are a little disingenuous, for sombre reflections on ecology and meditative analyses of time mark this as a book with a finger on the pulse of the Eighties. Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time comes to mind, or Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, warmly acknowledged here: Atwood’s book maps an intellectual location for itself. Its emotional impetus has other and fiercer sources. Nothing very much out of the ordinary seems to happen. This is not a tale of high drama. A friendship goes wrong, and Elaine’s early years are shadowed by a period of unhappiness. She recovers, and grows into self-possession. Her drawing begins with diagrams learned at school – the digestive systems of worms. She assumes she will be a biologist. Instead, she becomes an artist. But what she paints, the substance of an apparently unexceptional childhood, is a memory of fearful suffering and redemption. The ambition of the book reveals itself as a religious one: to realise, confront and exorcise the oppression of evil. This is a haunted novel, peopled with the dead. The most persistent ghost is that of the child Cordelia, the friend whose enmity almost destroys Elaine. Cordelia’s terrifying power is at last cancelled through the intervention of a divinity, ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help’, taking the shape of the Virgin Mary. Elaine at last comes to understand the nature of this deity, as she sees into the heart of Cordelia’s malice and is able to forgive. She is released. But Cat’s Eye is not a sentimental novel, nor are its conclusions altogether cheerful. Writing about childhood, and about creativity, Atwood accepts that both personality and art are defined by pain and wrong. To recognise this may be a healing process, even a loving one. But what is lost cannot be restored, and we are diminished by what makes us wise. This compassionate and elegiac book is about the moment of starting to be old, a first turning in a final direction.
We all carry our deaths within us. That might seem a poet’s insight rather than a novelist’s. One of the marks of maturity in Cat’s Eye is that it makes closer contact with Atwood’s gifts as a poet than any of the six earlier novels. Interlunar, her most recent collection of poems, confirms the uncompromising directness of the lyric voice she has evolved for herself as both poet and novelist. The symbolic cat’s eye is an instruction as well as a memory: like cats, we need to make the most of the limited light we have. ‘It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.’ This unassuming image is reflected in Interlunar. One of the simplest and most forceful poems, ‘Quattrocento’, recalls a picture of the fall in Eden. The newly mortal couple ‘must learn to see in darkness’. The apple they have eaten is seen as a heart ‘torn out of someone’, a cruel meal which has made them human:
it’s the death you carry in you
red and captured, that makes the world
shine for you
as it never did before.
This is how you learn prayer.
Love is choosing, the snake said.
The kingdom of god is within you
because you ate it.
Assimilation as consumption, or the core of religion, or cruelty – or, more starkly, as eating people – is the central theme of Marianne Wiggins’s John Dollar. Her remarkable novel takes up the ancient story of the fall in paradise, and rewrites it in the bleakest terms. This is a book that makes William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the most eminent of its literary forefathers, look like a study in innocence – perhaps because its undeviating gaze focuses on Eve, not Adam. Like Atwood, Wiggins places her fall in remembered history. Charlotte and Monkey, two old women, have been leading an eccentrically isolated life in Cornwall. Charlotte dies. Monkey gives her an illicit, lonely funeral in a church yard, recalling as she digs another desolate burial on a beach, years before. Charlotte had gone out to Burma at the end of the First World War, becoming teacher to a group of colonial children. Monkey is the only one of her pupils who is not white – her name a contemptuous Anglicisation of ‘Menaka’. Charlotte’s soldier husband has been killed in the War. In Burma she finds a lover, John Dollar, a sailor who gives his boat her name. Naming as possession – tender, callous or acquisitive – is important in this novel. The expatriate community in Rangoon decide to rename an island after the English king, in order to honour the royal birthday. An elaborate expedition sets sail. Once disembarked on the wild island, this patriotic picnic party starts to go badly awry. An undisciplined massacre of turtles, emerging from the sea to lay, is a dismaying omen. Much worse is to come. John Dollar discovers that the boys of the party have themselves been massacred by hostile natives. At the moment of this gory revelation, the island is struck by an emblematic tidal wave. The girls survive, battered and bewildered: on another part of the coastline, Monkey stumbles on John Dollar, paralysed from the waist down.
What follows is a relentless scrutiny of helplessness and savagery in human behaviour. Writing with an impressive degree of control and sophistication, Marianne Wiggins investigates the ghastly processes which crush the marooned children. Jane, the gentlest and most humane member of the forlorn band, chooses to die by starvation, refusing all food. She may be counted fortunate. Sickness and brutality overwhelm the remaining girls, as they await delivery in vain. The long-expected rescuing fathers do eventually arrive. But good luck is one of the commodities in shortest supply on this newest outpost of the Empire. The men, whose seemingly reliable strength consistently turns out to be illusory in this fictional domain, have fallen into the hands of the native warriors. Hidden on a nearby cliff, the girls are forced to watch as their fathers are cooked and eaten.
The phenomenon that particularly fascinates Wiggins in the spiritual disintegration she depicts as the consequence of this spectacle is the growth of a parodic religion. The strongest and most vicious girl, Nolly, is a clergyman’s daughter. Her fortitude comes from an unthinking acceptance of her father’s doctrines. But her resilience is an expression of her moral stupidity. The charities of the Christian faith mean nothing to her. She has been able to grasp Christianity only as a body of inflexible ritual. In the absence of her father’s authoritative church, she transfers her belief in the magic of ceremony to the only male idol available, the hapless John Dollar. We learn that the grim orthodoxy she constructs for herself and her close companion, Amanda, whose mind has been broken by the events on the island, is not dissimilar from the kind of consuming passions which provoked the hideous feast of the fathers on the beach. Monkey, the non-European child who represents the only surviving voice of loyalty and sanity on the island, flees from the tyranny of Nolly and Amanda in horror. But her headlong bid for escape leads her to a meeting with another unsuspected survivor. As the novel approaches its unforgettably emetic conclusion, Monkey finds that she has one last hard lesson to learn.
The reader’s troubled stomach will not be soothed by the opening words of Helen Hodgman’s evocation of contemporary life in South London, Broken Words.
The pond on the Common froze in the night. Thirteen ducks were caught by the feet. The big dog came along and bit each bird off at the knee. Later, the sight of a stubble of duck stumps poking through the ice like a five o’clock shadow was to fracture Hazel’s morning.
An introduction like that briskly clears away any lingering expectations of warm domesticity, even if the story doesn’t always bring off quite such a pitch of nausea. Hodgman has perfected an expertly urban style – cynically witty, confident and fast. She has little interest in Wiggins’s variety of pitiless deliberation. But she is equally determined to make her writing accomplish something quite out of the ordinary. Like Wiggins, she makes a macabre fictional world out of extremity, fabricated from mutilation and the fragmentation of order. Murderous cannibalism, rather jauntily described, makes a grisly appearance in this book too:
He goes to the fridge. He takes out the big plate on which Renate’s breasts sit side by side. He slaps the frying pan on the stove and pours in some oil.
Well, you never know, it might work.
It doesn’t, of course. Ending up as morsels to be devoured, the unlucky Renate embodies the failures, threats and broken anxieties that are pieced together in Hodgman’s kaleidoscopic narrative. Moss, an unemployed designer, is living on the edge of Clapham Common with her small son Elvis, and her vulnerable Australian lover, Hazel. Both have been married. Harold, the pathetic and feckless ex-husband of Moss, is powerless in the grip of the obsessive fantasies of Nazi depravity inherited from his father. Destructive and destroyed, he has no resources to resist the blandishments of a false religious guru. He joins a church that becomes a concentration camp. A victim of the atrocities of history, Harold loses a foot, then his life. Meanwhile Le Professeur de Judo, once married to Hazel, wonders whether he might feel less miserable if he were to assassinate her. Under such circumstances, it is unsurprising to learn that Moss and Hazel have become feminists, working with Buster and Beulah (also lovers) in the Women’s Design Collective. But this novel too, much more tentatively than Cat’s Eye, explores the territory of post-feminism. The Collective falls to bits. So does almost everything else. Ravelling or unravelling sweaters in this novel are more worrying than in Cat’s Eye, bereft of Atwood’s composedly metaphysical conjectures:
Moss noticed a strand of mauve wool caught on the gate post. As far as Moss could see, it ran all the way up the street. Buster had been wearing a mauve jumper. Was Buster unravelling?
Beulah abandons her principles and herself to a lustful romantic novelist. Moss looks for a proper job. Hazel turns to a new male lover, Walter, though his uncertain amorousness is much diluted by grief for the plight of his mutinous son Rupert, a child lost beyond redemption, lying helpless in a coma.
Nothing looks very hopeful. Nevertheless, the novel is not without a species of modified optimism. Like a punk with a kind face, it conceals familiar or even reassuring values just beneath its knowingly devised outrages. This is a nasty and precarious world in which people continue to care about each other. Most of all, they care about their children. Walter’s anguish for his stricken boy is given more dignity and weight than anything that might have been expected in an apparently flip book. Buster, most adamant of the novel’s feminists, has a daughter fathered by sperm donated in a yogurt pot by the milkman. Sitting on a bus, she thinks of a name for the baby:
‘Welcome to our world. Lamasthu, little lion-headed daughter of heaven.’
And the little lion-headed one smiles a smile that staggers the beat of her mother’s heart.
It is a moment that would not disgrace the People’s Friend.
But the temporary failure of tone is revealing. For Hodgman, the children are what count. For all her city slickery, she is a good deal less ruthless than Marianne Wiggins. She can’t bring herself to leave her fictional offspring to their fate. Even the wretched Rupert is finally protected. Moss’s little boy, Elvis, has struck up a heart-stoppingly hazardous friendship with Renate’s hungry murderer. But he, too, is seen to be safe at last, guarded by a mother who is turning out to be less unconventional than she might have seemed. ‘He sobs and hiccups, and she finds she loves him so much she doesn’t know what to do for him and probably never will.’ Nothing very new in that. Such sentiments make Helen Hodgman a less audacious writer than Marianne Wiggins, perhaps a less courageous one. But she is much easier to swallow.