Elaine Risley, a painter, returns to Toronto to find herself overwhelmed by her past. Memories of childhood – unbearable betrayals and cruelties – surface relentlessly, forcing her to confront the spectre of Cordelia, once her best friend and tormentor, who has haunted her for forty years.
If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good? Probably the latter. I still have that need.
This künstlerroman clearly shows the impact of ideas that lock themselves into our minds at a very early age. Even though Elaine is a respectable painter in her fifties, the actions of her childhood friend, the ironically named Cordelia, still influence her every thought.
Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.
Atwood uses many flashbacks to show how Cordelia keeps talking Elaine down and chastising her, resulting in Elaine pulling the skin of the soles of her feet until they bleed. But what was most striking to me is that Elaine starts internalizing Cordelia’s reproaches and keeps them alive until long after her childhood. Cordelia’s life becomes an ideal and Elaine both savours and fears her distance to it. Even when in her high school years she seems to break free from Cordelia’s opinions, she simply copies Cordelia’s behaviour. It is not all the small cruelties that little girls do to each other that make the novel so touching, but the way Elaine deals with them.
The second half of the book describes Elaine’s road to becoming a painter. In a way, it feels a bit hippie-meets-paintbrush, with its philosophical discussions in bars, painting nudes in basements and a dada-esque boyfriend. Underneath it all lies Elaine’s simmering desire to meet Cordelia, to talk to her and show her how she has changed. In her mind, Cordelia has become something bigger, more enticing than she actually is. Throughout the novel Elaine continues to struggle with Cordelia’s hold over her, that is actually a hold she has on herself.
The alcohol smell is on my fingers, cold and remote, piercing like a steel pin going in. It smells like white enamel basins. When I look up at the stars in the nighttime, cold and white and sharp, I think they must smell like that.
This book left me with a lot of food for thought about the workings of memory and the way other people influence us. It is much richer than I can describe in one blog post, so please read it for yourself :).
Then there is this picture of some blogging – behind the scenes, here at ANoR ;).