By the author of The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace 'One of the most important novels of the 20th century . . . utterly remarkable' New York Times A young woman returns to northern Quebec to the remote island of her childhood, with her lover and two friends, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her father. Flooded with memories, she begins to realise that going home means entering not only another place but another time. As the wild island exerts its elemental hold and she is submerged in the language of the wilderness, she sees that what she is really looking for is her own past.
Surfacing is narrated by an unnamed women in her twenties, who journeys to her childhood home. Her father is missing, last seen in his cabin on an island in northern Quebec. Along with her boy-friend and another couple, the narrator attempts to find clues to her father's whereabouts, while spending a few days fishing the lakes around the cabin.
This book was written in 1972, the same year that Atwood wrote Survival, a book of literary criticism exploring Canadian Literature. Atwood claimed that while the central thematic symbol of British Literature would be the island, and that of American Literature is the frontier, Canadian Literature is defined by survival. Atwood saw characters in Canadian Lit as having to fight for their lives, as needing to survive other human beings, the natural world, or their own inner turmoil. Character against Nature is particularly prevalent in Can Lit, especially in the Modern period, of about 1940-1970. This struggle is often a metaphor for the character's struggle with his or herself, with Nature standing in the place of impending madness. Atwood's own poetry from this period demonstrates this theme, particularly her poems about Susanna Moodie, and "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer." Since 1972, Atwood's theories have fallen a little out of favour - her book, IMHO, makes sense for its time, but not really for present-day writing.
Surfacing clearly echoes a lot of what Atwood discusses in Survival - and hey, if you are going to define Canadian Literature, and then write a Canadian novel, I guess your novel should follow your own definition, right? So, as Atwood's narrator spends more time in the bush, her mental state begins to decline. The reader sees hints of instability throughout the novel, but the climax really highlights the connection between Nature and Madness. The narrator's thoughts become disconnected, and are often only partial sentences or images. Atwood skillfully traces the narrator's downward spiral, and the reader feels pulled down along with her.
However, at only 195 pages, Surfacing is not all that it could be. Contemporary Atwood novels are long, meaty narratives, and better demonstrate this author's considerable skill. The ending felt rushed and inconclusive - and, while I am not opposed to endings that leave the reader with unanswered questions, I felt that this ending did not do justice to the subject matter. Insanity is a complex state, and if an author decides to tackle this topic, then he or she had better confront it head on, delve deep, and take some risks - which Atwood does in her later novel, Alias Grace. Surfacing definitely has potential, but it is one of those stories that should have been 400 pages, not 200.
Again, this is only Atwood's second novel, and the reader can see glimpses of the author of masterpieces like Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. It is always interesting to see an author's development over a body of work, but Surfacing unquestionably places me as a fan of Atwood's later novels.
For me this book was an unsolved mystery & a thriller. My second Atwood, the first being The Penelopiad, & I again found myself enamored by her words, her phrasing and by her imagination.
Both Atwood tales I've read were deep & dark to me. I have to remain focused & must constantly think when I read her. (I wonder if all of her books are all like this.) She has a way of working her way into the deepest reaches of one's mind & she finds the humanity that exists and brings it to the front.
Surfacing is about a woman who returns to her home village in Canada. She is searching for her father in a cabin in the woods where she was raised. She is on this journey with her lover and another couple. As the days go by she finds herself returning to nature in every sense of that word. She becomes primal, driven to the point of madness, as she returns to this original state. It's not happy book. It's heartbreaking and beautiful. There's a purity to her madness, to this return to nature as she slowly loses her friends, her family, her memories, her sense of self.
This small novel really sucked me in and I read in a single sitting. I intently followed the unnamed female lead character through her attempts to find & understand the disappearance of her father.
Surfacing is a very sad & intense novel. And there is so much in it that I read & reread and yet I am sure that I still missed some of Atwood's understanding. I know that one day I will be in the mood to read this book again and it is definitely worth a reread.
Written in the first person by a young woman who travels to a remote part of Quebec in search of her father who has been reported missing. She is accompanied by her boyfriend Joe and a couple of married friends Anne and David. Joe and David have hired some movie equipment and want to make a cinema verite film of their experiences. The young woman (who is never named) teaches her friends basic skills for living in a remote part of the country: her fathers dwelling place is a wooden shack on an island in the middle of a lake with no electricity. The young woman’s search leads her away from her friends and we see them through her eyes as she quickly becomes remote from their city-like culture and life style.
The missing father has been involved in his own search for evidence of a missing Indian culture around the lakes and the young woman seems to want to step into his shoes to track down what happened to him. Meetings with rich American vacationers/hunters on the lake upset everybody and the book has a particular Canadian anti-American feel to it. David spouts anti-capitalist dogma at every opportunity, when he isn’t being mean to his wife Anna. Joe proposes marriage to the young woman but by this time she really does not want to have anything much to do with the other three. She retreats into her own world and rapidly goes insane.
The young woman’s descent into madness; happening so quickly is far from convincing and while the first part of the novel has a certain atmosphere of suspense in that the reader feels that something is about to happen as people are unravelling on the trip, it plunges into a denouement that is surprising and just not believable. This is an early novel by Margaret Atwood written in a style of short sharp sentences that do give the book a realist feel, but I felt that there was something missing in the core of this novel. I have yet to be convinced by Atwood and so three stars for this.
What happened here? I realize it was an early work and clearly her writing and tone improved rapidly, but there wasn't a lot of redemption in this work, for me. I wanted to find some trace of Atwood's genius as I continued, but I just felt more and more as if I were in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Sure, the descriptions are still lovely, and there are the quirks and feminism tropes found in all her stories, but it just didn't bring the novel together for me. Just because she is one of the greatest novels of the past fifty years, does not make one lower-grade book any more noteworthy. Not recommended.
This is a slim little novel, speeds by until the last 20 pages or so - and at that point it becomes much more... muddy. For good reason, which I won't share here, since it's worth reading on your own.
Overall, it's not a happy novel. Partly it's about facades, how people act one way but feel another. It's about cruelty, emotional and otherwise, lashing out when we feel pain. It's about discovering yourselves, crumbling under traumas.
A good little book, 4.5 stars I'd say.
While reading Surfacing, I kept a close eye out for mentions of things that surface in a variety of ways, and I was not disappointed by this avenue of looking into the work. The word "surface" comes up several times, and as most of the action takes place near a lake, many things "surface" - the protagonist's brother and father, for one, plus fish and the like. Several things also surface metaphorically - secrets about the other couple staying at the cabin with them, latent feelings, personal secrets about the protagonist herself, jealousy, and so on. In fact, the protagonist talks about the head being separate from the body - separated by the neck - and having a life of its own. At one point in the novel, she plunges her head underwater, and I thought about the head surfacing first, then the rest of her. There's a lot of underwater, plunging, and diving going on throughout the novel too. I found my paying attention to the title to be very satisfying as I read.
However, the ending was weird. I think the protagonist was hallucinating or trying to get back to the primal or something, but it was just plain weird and inexplicable. I've run into the weird and inexplicable endings with Atwood before, and I hate feeling like I'm missing something importantly metaphorical or symbolic, which I'm certain I did here. Ah, well. Perhaps I will find a kind soul who will explain what in the Dickens was going on in the last few chapters, and then I'll feel better.
The prose was lovely throughout the book. I noticed longer sentences, almost run-ons, which were not present in Lady Oracle, my most recent Atwood read. I wondered at this as I read. The protagonist is an artist, and I posited that perhaps the style was meant to flow more around the protagonist's own artistic stylings.
In all, I appreciated the read, though I was disappointed with the ending, I have to say. It wouldn't stop me from recommending the book, however.
This is a novel that needs to be read on various levels. An understanding that it is an exploration of X's mind and memories - and how they affect her current situations, along with being an exploration of X's current life and her needs to become someone knew, defined by herself as opposed to all those around her, is necessary to getting anything out of the work. It is not a straight time-line story, nor is any of our lives. We all fluctuate between the present and the past, trying to figure out how the past has impacted our present.
Atwood does an admirable job of writing this process out, in my opinion.
The nameless character goes back to her childhood home on a remote island looking for her father....she brings all kinds of emotions and "hangups" with her.
She spends little over a week with her boyfriend and another couple...they all start getting on each other's nerves. When it is time to leave, the nameless heroine hides and doesn't go with them....even stranger things happen when she is there alone.
While there with her friends, she is constantly worrying that her widowed father will return and be enraged that there are people in his home. She finds things from her childhood while in the house and things that make her think about feelings and obligations.
She seems to be looking for answers about her life then and now.
It has excellent character descriptions and descriptions of feelings.....it takes a few pages to get you interested, and it is a deep, thoughtful book with a lot more "underneath" that comes out - must be why it is called surfacing?
It did have an interesting perspective on certain types of being numb in life.
This book was written well over a decade before "Cat's Eye" which I read recently. I noticed that various elements of the "Surfacing" heroine's life have been recycled and expanded upon in the story of Elaine in the later book.
As much as this woman is her best friend, and she's with the guy she's living with, she doesn't seem connected to them at all. And as we follow her along her journey, we learn more and more about why she is so disconnected, and not just to them but to the world at large.
There's a lot going on in this relatively short novel - the mystery of her father's disappearance, her relationship to the people she's on the trip with, her marriage, growing up on this island with her brother; over and over she is depicted as a stranger.
Some of the themes touched on include feminism, marriage and love. Also, I was surprised at the anti-Americanism depicted in the book. I haven't read that much Canadian fiction, and this is the first time I've noticed that theme, and I'm quite curious if that is common or not in Canadian fiction. In the end, everyone's an American, and that's not good!
I liked the book and read it quickly, wanting to know what was going to happen. It's not my favorite Atwood book though - I liked The Blind Assasin and The Handmaid's Tale a lot more. It was a bit dissatisfying - I wanted there to be a bit more closure on what happened to her father, and to be honest, I'm not 100% sure what happened with her husband and her child - it was a bit disjointed.