Surfacing

by Margaret Atwood

Hardcover, 1972

Status

Available

Publication

New York, Simon and Schuster [1973, c1972]

Description

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cait86
Well, my favourite authors have been disappointing me lately. First, I was underwhelmed by McEwan's Amsterdam, and now I am dissatisfied with Atwood's Surfacing. I have heard from other that Atwood fans tend to favour either her earlier works or her later works, and I guess I fall under the latter category. Surfacing is Atwood's second novel, and while well-written, I feel as though she left a lot of potential territory unexplored.

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.
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LibraryThing member rainpebble
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood; 4 stars

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.
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LibraryThing member Esquiress
As a huge Atwood fan, I've really been meaning to get to her older fare, having read most of her newer novels and short fiction; I'm a bit lacking in the poetry and non-fiction departments of her work as well. Surfacing is definitely an older novel of hers, so I was very eager to get into it.

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.
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LibraryThing member baswood
Another holiday read for me, but I would not want to go on holiday with any of the protagonists in this book. This is in essence a back to nature fable - a young woman strives to strip away layers of civilisation in an attempt to communicate with her estranged father.

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.
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LibraryThing member cemagoc
What is this? I have read several Atwood novels and short stories, and I found myself cringing throughout the first ten pages of this novel, ten pages in which I found five typos. Whoa.

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.
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LibraryThing member phoebesmum
Truth be told, I read Margaret Atwood because I feel I ought to, not because I like her very much. I’m sure there are valuable life lessons concealed within these pages, but they stayed concealed for all of me.
LibraryThing member ThePortPorts
Every time I read Atwood, I am struck by how different she is. I love that I can come to a book and know that I'm in for something good - but not something rehashed. Margaret Atwood doesn't do formula - each book is it's own creation, different from what's come before and not simply a taste of what's to come.

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.
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LibraryThing member Virtual_Jo
A story that has never left my soul. A young woman holidays with a group of friends and gradually recreates herself as the wild woman of the woods, realising her primal power, as she deconstructs the destructive power-over relationships of the modern world. Very thought provoking and one of Atwood's finest.
LibraryThing member HippieLunatic
While certainly not my favorite Atwood tale (that title goes to The Handmaid's Tale, this was a wonderfully beautiful, dark story of a woman trying to figure out who she is and why. How X is able to delve into her past, figuring out why she has become who she is, with little attachment to relationships is a story that most women have experienced, on at least some level. No, not every woman is faced with the pain that X has had to face, or the desire to simply leave everything behind, but I would bet that in each of our lives, we have had a need to become a detective to figure out our own life.

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.
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LibraryThing member scd87
Abortion, divorce, environmentalism, Canadian-American relationships, sexism – oh my! This list of difficult issues is tackled in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, which is about a woman who searches for her lost father in northern Quebec, along with her boyfriend (Joe) and a married couple (David and Anna). These subjects may seem a bit overwhelming for one novel, but Surfacing handles these issues (and more) very well. The unnamed narrator is deeply affected by these problems of twentieth-century society, and the novel’s messages are not lost on a twenty-first century reader.
I don’t know how good of a strategy this is, but when I read novels, I like to be able to say to myself that ‘character X is a good/bad person’. I just find that the characters are typically more memorable when I can label them according to how their morals and intentions compare to my values. It was easy for me to do this with characters like David (who I found despicable, yet entertaining), and Anna (who I felt sorry for, while I also wanted to knock some sense into her). The reader feels like he or she knows where David and Anna are coming from, even though the novel is a first-person narrative.
On the other hand, Atwood skilfully kept Joe, and his relationship with the narrator, a little mysterious. Joe’s intentions were never clear, and the narrator kept waiting for him to physically hurt her, but he never did. Although such vagueness about an important character would normally annoy me, I enjoyed the vagueness of Joe. The first-person narration means that every insight about Joe depicts the narrator’s numbness to love. Atwood uses Joe as a vehicle for the reader to learn about the narrator, and Joe never really becomes more than ‘the narrator’s boyfriend’, but he does play a major role in the narrator’s transformation.
One aspect of the novel that I thought was very interesting was the Canadian view of Americans. Atwood seems to have grasped the love/hate relationship that Canadians feel towards our neighbours to the south. With the huge differences in population size, it is understandable that Canadians feel threatened by American society, and are therefore critical of it. In Surfacing, Americans are represented as polluting, careless killers who will do anything to get what they want: “Are the Americans worse than Hitler?” (129). David is especially vocal about his distaste for Americans, calling them things like “rotten capitalist bastards” (12). But, the irony in David’s character is how much he is actually like the Americans he hates so much. Besides the fact that he loves baseball (the American past-time), he seems to treat his wife Anna the same way the Americans abuse the Canadian environment; they take advantage of it for their own leisure without regard for the damage they are causing.
Many people would probably call Surfacing a feminist novel, but I think that Atwood gets even deeper than that. She seems to be commenting on what it means to be human, not just a female human. This comes from the narrator’s understanding of nature, which I would say is the main reason to read this novel. The narrator does not accept the roles for women in society, but she does not seem to accept society in general, either. Having grown up in northern Quebec, the narrator connects to the natural world better than any city or suburban person ever can. It is this connection that makes her critical of people’s place in the world, which is seen in her views on animals, surviving in the woods, and environmental exploitation. The narrator’s insight may make you want to pack just the essentials, and head off into the wilderness!
Overall, Surfacing is a psychological exploration of a woman’s search for her place in the world. While the serious issues in this novel are not too heavy, they will make the reader go into deep thought about the major problems presented. I have heard that Atwood’s newer works are much better than her earlier stuff. I don’t know if that means people typically do not enjoy Surfacing or they just really love her later works, but in my case, I know I will definitely be checking out more titles by Atwood since I really enjoyed Surfacing. How could her writing get better?
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LibraryThing member Stevil2001
I don't know what to say about this book other than that I found it beautiful. Margaret Atwood knows people, and all their messed-up ways; the ones in here are often annoying, but always people you know-- probably because you could become them very easily. Or at least that's what you fear. How do we become complicit in terrible things? One of many questions Atwood tackles here, though on a much smaller scale than in The Handmaid's Tale. I could read her all day; every sentence is a gem.… (more)
LibraryThing member Magadri
Linguistically, this novel was fantastic. Atwood's prose is wonderful; her strange metaphors and similes never ceased to amaze me. However, other than the language, I didn't come away from this novel with much. The story line was barely interesting, and the characters were irritating. I'm certain that in two years, I will have forgotten what this book was even about.… (more)
LibraryThing member SilversReviews
STRANGE....easiest way to describe it.

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?
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LibraryThing member Nickelini
An odd book. At times quite interesting, and there is a lot going on, but it left me with an unsettled feeling. I can see why this isn't a favourite by Atwood fans who love the Handmaid's Tale.
LibraryThing member isabelx
I am getting distinctly bored with Margaret Atwood. Her protagonists are so distant that I have a hard time caring what happens to them. And I don't like books in which the main character's name is never mentioned - it's just annoying. But at least this was a short novel and only took me a couple of days to get through.

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.
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LibraryThing member Fluffyblue
This was a small book, but was quite challenging to read. I've never read any Margaret Atwood before, so didn't know what to expect. I think I enjoyed it in the main. It was very 'deep' and thought provoking, and by the end of it you felt like you were upside down. I the third part the most difficult to read - I could see what was happening but couldn't understand it.… (more)
LibraryThing member nocto
This didn't captivate me really, seemed a bit dated. I'm surprised I finished it really - I start way more books than I finish lately.
LibraryThing member advena
Margaret Atwood is my favourite author. She has a voice I identify with - a rare pleasure. I find her use of language so beautiful and artful that I could read any of her books repeatedly. I frequently find myself reading and rereading sentences and paragraphs because they are so stunningly crafted.
LibraryThing member katelattuca
This short novel receives fewer accolades than it should. Examine it next to Carol Sheild's "Swann" and you're likely to look at the author in a whole new, maternal light.
LibraryThing member ahgonzales
Although the book was difficult to get through, it was an interesting read. The main character takes a trip back to her childhood home with her boyfriend and another couple after find out her father has gone missing. It was hard to relate to any of the characters, the main woman is distant yet introspective, the boyfriend is also distant without the internal narration, and the couple comes off as self-centered asses. As the book explored the character relationships, none were big surprises, just expansions of initial impressions. The overall themes were more engaging: relationships, birth/abortion, family and nature. A lot packed into such a short book, but I don't know if I'd read it again to get more out of it. It's also probably not a book I'd recommend to others.… (more)
LibraryThing member sjurban
This is the only book by Atwood that I didn't like at all. It was too cryptic. Maybe I just didn't get it, but either way, I did not enjoy it at all.
LibraryThing member susan139
Readable, though confusing, what was that at the end?
LibraryThing member DivineMissW
Interesting book. Margaret Atwood tells stories like no one else. She is always facinating in her perspectives.
LibraryThing member voracious
I have read a number of Margaret Atwood's books including, most recently, "Cat's Eye," which probably set me up for disappointment with this novel, one of Atwood's earliest works. In "Surfacing", the unnamed protagonist, her boyfriend, and another couple travel to a rural island in Quebec, in search of the protagonist's father, who has gone missing. The couples do not appear to know eachother well, but over the course of a week spent in the missing father's cabin, they begin to learn more about one another, though the primary character remains distant from the others, her secrets hidden and only gradually and obscurely exposed to the reader. Much of the novel is spent in flashbacks of earlier times and towards the end, the primary character appears to slip into a psychotic break, which is unexpected and confusing. Though Atwood's melodic and poetic language is apparent even in this early novel (her second, published in 1972), it only glimpses of the power of her talent, which fully emerges in her later novels such as "The Handmaid's Tale", "Cat's Eye", "Blind Assassin" and "The Robber Bride". In all, I found this novel rather bland, distant, emotionless, and confusing. I would not recommend it to anyone unless they were already Atwood fans who already knew of her ability to spin complex and entertaining narratives.… (more)
LibraryThing member indiefishsteak
I didn't finish this book. It put me in a very bad state of mind, and I didn't really care about the characters. So, it didn't seem worth my time. Rather depressing and numb-feeling. I was kind of disappointed, since I love most of her other work.

It did have an interesting perspective on certain types of being numb in life.… (more)

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