I think I have a new favourite book! Margaret Atwood has this way of talking about relationships between men and women and women and other women that cuts through the surface and presents a raw image of raw emotions (Margaret Atwood -The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood – Life before man, The edible woman – Margaret Atwood,The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood).
This one though, this one.. It was so good that I had to take breather days to be able to process the details correctly. Not since Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects have I been so disturbed by the life of pre-teen girls, the bullying, the meaness, the sorrow of the outcast.
I would say it’s a book for women (not to be mean to all the men who wish to read this) but a book that deconstructs the female psyche and follows a young woman to adulthood will probably not feel so great reading this. It’s got feminist tendencies, even though Margaret Atwood has been trying not to be lumped together with the feminists but the way the book goes, it’s pretty hard not feel the strong independent woman that she becomes.
The naked women are presented in the same manner as the plates of meat and dead lobsters, with the same attention to the play of candlelight on skin, the same lusciousness, the same sensuous and richly rendered detail, the same painterly delight in tactility. They appear served up.
This is not so much the story of an ageing female painter (Elaine Risley) – a relic of the pre-feminism mode of life – told in snatches, as much as it is an account of the relationships which molded and shaped her character and the enduring trauma of childhood bullying which manifested itself in nearly all her life choices, flawed as they were. Every person needs friends but some people are blessed with a nemesis. Cordelia was Elaine’s. Her impact is so great that even in her adult years she expects to see her coming around the corner, meet her on the street, looks for traces of her in her two daughters, as either tormentors or tormented.
I loved her parents, her brother with the frayed jumpers, even her small self reading comic books. All her life turns upside down when Cordelia moves in the neighbourhood and slowly and steadily turns her friends against her and they gang up on her. Even her mother can tell that something is wrong, and she keeps telling her
“You know, you don’t have to play with them”
But Elaine is determined to give her friends a chance and thinks that all the mean remarks are ways of “improving her” – fix her posture, her clothes, her attitude.
“Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.”
In the mean time, her self esteem takes a nosedive and the breaking point comes one cold winter evening when Cordelia throws her hat in a ravine and makes her go back for it. Elaine slips and falls into the river and nearly freezes to death and she has a vision of a Virgin Mary shrouded in black saving her. She gets home and she begins to change. She shuts off her friends, gets new ones, continues school, gets on her path in life and everything just becomes a thing of the past. She pulls a shroud over her childhood and forgets all about Cordelia and her cronies. She meets her again in highschool and they start hanging out together again, shoplifting, skipping school, and this is when Elaine makes a discovery – the balance of power shifts as she realizes that Cordelia is afraid of her.
“Knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a claim on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.”
Not so much a fictionalized outpouring of her discontent with her declining youth and whitening hair as much her rivetting blow-by-blow dissection of the world and the people around her through the years. And because I know Atwood stringently avoids any associations with the term ‘feminist’ or any group identity which seeks to shoehorn her writing into some exclusive compartment, I’ll merely say it also includes some of the most cutting, precise and unbiased observations about every issue of major importance. Wars, terrorism, racism, religious bigotry, sexism, misogyny, art and art criticism, motherhood, the politics of relationships…you name it and Elaine has startling new wisdom to offer on that topic, however time-worn.
The world is being run by people my age, men my age, with falling-out hair and health worries, and it frightens me. When the leaders were older than me I could believe in their wisdom, I could believe they had transcended rage and malice and the need to be loved. Now I know better. I look at the faces in newspapers, in magazines, and wonder: what greeds, what furies-drive them on?
The complexity of relationships between women of nearly all ages is often a difficult thing to fully comprehend let alone commit to paper. Generally, we find it easier to communicate with men. While with other women you are forever grasping at straws, unable to determine which layer of superficiality you are dealing with and which of your layers of feigned cordiality or fabricated fellow feeling may win their favor. But Atwood, the mistress of the craft that she is, has brought the private, secretive world of female bondings alive and demolished one of the greatest pop culture stereotypes ever – that of the mean girl. So believe the reviewers who have confessed to having a Cordelia-like frenemy in their lives – someone who understood them better than a lot of people while simultaneously doling out emotional torment in devious ways. I’m no exception. Once you come across a Cordelia in your life – no matter how much you may have loathed her at times – it’s hard to dull the edges of the memory of your involvement with her. She looms larger than life at the back of your mind and fades into the distance of years. Try as you might you cannot forget her. And neither could Elaine.
There is the same shame, the sick feeling in my body, the same knowledge of my own wrongness, awkwardness, weakness; the same wish to be loved; the same loneliness; the same fear. But these are not my own emotions any more. They are Cordelia’s; as they always were
Best parts of the book: I can’t pick a single one, there are loads – from the description of the paintings which resonate so strongly with her life, hidden messages inside paint and expressions. I loved the men and how she disposed of them the moment they got too needy (or clingy), the way she loved them.
When I am lonely for boys it’s their bodies I miss. I study their hands lifting the cigarettes in the darkness of the movie theaters, the slope of a shoulder, the angle of a hip. Looking at them sideways, I examine them in different lights. My love for them is visual: that is the part of them I would like to possess. Don’t move, I think. Stay like that, let me have that.”
“Old lovers go the way of old photographs, bleaching out gradually as in a slow bath of acid: first the moles and pimples, then the shadings. Then the faces themselves, until nothing remains but the general outlines.”
I loved the darkness that followed her up until her older years – that feeling of not fitting in with the girls, always feeling better around men. Men are simple and honest – women will bear a grudge for ages.
“Forgiving men is so much easier than forgiving women.”
What I didn’t like: her depressive states, lying in the floor, inactive and nearly dead.
“I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.”