CAT'S EYE by Margaret Atwood, New York: Doubleday, 446 pp. $18.95.
MEMORIES of childhood, the stock in trade of a novelist, evoke light and darkness like no subsequent stages of life. ``Nothing goes away,'' observes Elaine Risley, the reminiscing narrator of Margaret Atwood's remarkable and disturbing seventh novel, and for the next 445 pages she proves it by recalling the mostly dark side of her girlhood in post-war Toronto.
Elaine, a painter in her late 40s now living with her second husband in Vancouver, has returned to Toronto for a retrospective of her surrealist art. But instead of being buoyed by her artistic success and the spotlight of this one-woman show, she finds herself being ``dragged downward, into the layers of this place as into liquefied mud.'' Wandering through the neighborhoods of her youth, she is dogged by memories of a trio of ``best'' friends whose constant betrayals left her a perpetual outsider.
``Until we moved to Toronto I was happy,'' Elaine says in a matter-of-fact tone that gives a haunting air to her sad story.
As a kind of nature's child, she spends her earliest years leading an idyllic, nomadic existence with her family in northern Canada, where her entomologist father works as a field researcher. Then, when she is 8, her father takes a position as a university professor in Toronto, and life changes dramatically. For the first time Elaine can look forward to having girlfriends, rather than the constant companionship of her older brother, Stephen.
Yet she quickly discovers that ``playing with girls is different and at first I feel strange as I do it, self-conscious, as if I'm only doing an imitation of a girl.'' She knows ``the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder.'' Her intuition proves correct. As she and her friends, led by the manipulative Cordelia, go about the activities of late-1940s girlhood - jumping rope, playing school, cutting out paper dolls and household objects from department store catalogs - she endures taunts, humiliations, and rejections. Each time her tormentors impose penalties for her unspecified sins, Elaine convinces herself that ``All of this is for my own good, because they are my best friends and they want to help me improve.'' Frozen into passivity by her desperate wish to be accepted, she can only clutch a red plastic purse containing her favorite talisman, a cat's-eye marble, and cling bravely to the hope that ``things will change, they will be different, something will be done.''
Only after a Cordelia-inspired ``accident'' nearly takes Elaine's life does she realize that ``it was always a game, and I have been fooled. I have been stupid.''
Yet so deep-seated is the hurt that decades later, after art school and two marriages, she still feels peripheral in the company of women. Even when her two daughters were born, she recalls thinking she should have had sons. ``I didn't feel up to daughters, I didn't know how they worked.''
Obviously Atwood does know how girls work. She understands the intense and complicated relationships that can exist among them - the gossip and giggles, the shifting alliances, the whispered secrets, the petty betrayals.
Atwood leavens the unremitting sadness of Elaine's story with dry humor and witty observations of Toronto's transformation from dowdy backwater to glitzy world-class city. She is a master of description, a social chronicler who records in perfect detail Elaine's 1950s childhood world of Mixmasters, blond Scandinavian furniture, angora sweaters, pot roast in pressure cookers, and Jack Benny on Sunday night radio.
Still, ``Cat's Eye'' is a more chilling story than Atwood's previous best seller, ``The Handmaid's Tale.'' That book, her icy vision of a futuristic totalitarian society, at least remains imaginary. In this latest work, the harsh truth upon which the fiction is based makes a reader ache not only for Elaine, but for every girl who has ever been caught in a spider's web of preadolescent relationships.
Does Atwood pull together the strands of the web a little too neatly as she reverses the winner-loser roles of Cordelia and Elaine in adulthood? Perhaps. But she is never glibly fatalistic in creating her memorable fictional reminder that adults are not the only ones who can abuse children, and that emotional abuse inflicted by peers is sometimes the cruelest punishment of all.