Review: Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood

Synopsis: Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices.

Title: Surfacing
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Virago Press
Pub Date: First Published 1972
Pages: 251


“The trouble is all in the knob at the top of our bodies. I’m not against the body or the head either: only the neck, which creates the illusion that they are separate. The language is wrong, it shouldn’t have different words for them.”

If you’ve read my review of A Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll know that I’m slightly in love with Margaret Atwood’s writing. I was determined to read more of her work, and soon.

I was lucky enough to get three of her books at Christmas (my not-so-subtle hints found their mark). And for the first time ever, I started Surfacing straight away. You can’t help but love Atwood’s writing; it’s sharp, poetic and visually evocative. Despite this, I was a bit lost for most of the book. Is it a thriller? Is the dad a killer? Will her ex-husband come back??

What the heck is going on!?

I’ll admit I started to lose a little faith in Atwood, where was this story going?!

I finished the book late (really late) one evening and got even more confused. Did I dream the end?! What the heck just happened?!

So I did what any other bookworm would do and spent my next morning’s coffee pondering the book. And by pondering, I mean I sat there staring at it whilst sipping my latte macchiato. I was determined to unravel the mystery.

That’s when it all started to make sense.

And now I’m in love with this book.

I realised my problem was that I’d spent the entire story trying to pigeon hole our protagonist. Like the society she is brought up in, I was subconsciously forcing a ‘type’ on her. What kind of woman is she? Mother? Wife? Slut? Hysterical? Mad?

“I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place.”

Our protagonist doesn’t even have a name, yet here I am pushing her into a category – forcing her to act accordingly. And isn’t that what inevitably happens to us all? Who are we really? What society deems us to be? Or is there more to who we actually are?

This is a story of a woman drowning in a lifetime of roles that she has had to play. Never allowed to be herself, each role pulls her true self further down into the depths. Her father’s disappearance forces her to face her past, the death of her identity and, worst of all, it forces her to see what she has become.

Atwood depicts the traumas of life, abortion, the imbalance between male and female partners brutally and beautifully. From hacked tree stumps, to decomposing herons strung up for no other reason than to be killed, the protagonist’s life and breakdown is all there, visually depicted in the environment.

I started to read Surfacing with an idea of what ‘type’ of book I was getting into, and I was completely wrong. Like A Handmaid’s Tale, all you need to know before starting is that it will move you, maybe haunt you. It will make you stop and think.

And that’s the sign of a pretty great book.

“the Eskimoes had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them, there ought to be as many for love.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.