I did not pick the easiest book as my first encounter with Atwood. The most dominant thought upon finishing Surfacing was “I do not really know what to think”. Now that a few days have elapsed, I’m still not exactly sure.
The thing is, I think this is possibly one of the most complicated books I have read in a long time. Most of the time I felt I was skimming the surface of the meaning of what was being said, and even then I was quite happy that I actually got these small glimpses.
The basic premise, of which I am going to say very little in order not to give too much away, is that a young woman returns to her parental home in Quebec, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her father. She is joined by three friends that she has only known for a few months. One is her boyfriend, and the others are a befriended married couple. Over the course of two weeks, during which the four stay at the deserted island where the young woman’s parents used to live, tensions between the friends come to the surface while the main character slowly confronts her past and future.
I am sorry if that sounds impossibly vague, but I truly feel I cannot tell you anything more about the book without spoiling the main plot developments. I do feel that in this case spoilers won’t really detract from the book, as it is in the execution, the feelings and questions that the story evokes, that the real power of the narrative lies. But I’d like to not scare away regular readers with all my spoilerly posts lately.
As I said, the power of the book lies in its execution. Margaret Atwood’s prose (although I fear it might have been weakened a little by the Dutch translation that I read) can paint the most evocative pictures in your mind. Mostly, in the case of Surfacing, it is not so much the landscape itself that she establishes, but a feeling of paranoia, a hauntedness, a claustrophobic feeling that something isn’t quite right. I know that this is perhaps the staple feeling that comes with island settings (if they’re not used to illustrate quirky communities), but Atwood does it so well. From the very moment the narration starts you know that something is off with either the main character or the setting through which she navigates. To be honest, for a moment there I imagined a dystopian society more than one set in what I guess are the seventies. I guess this illustrates how much I have come to associate this kind of literary claustrophobia with dystopian novels, or perhaps it just illustrates that Atwood has you puzzled from the start.
What adds to this sense of unease are the frequent allusions to animals. Atwood constantly seems to question the boundaries between nature and humanity, conscious and unconscious “evil”, animal instincts and human rationality. It is not that Atwood is not funny. Actually, when a paragraph on wild animals is directly followed by a sentence in which the main character remarks on her boyfriend’s hairy body, I couldn’t quite keep from smiling. But those weren’t comfortable giggles. Mostly they were the opposite.
Another theme that frequently recurs is the objectification of women. The woman who is part of the married couple does not dare show her face to her husband if she has no make up on, there are frequent allusions to using sex as a weapon to bring the opposite sex down, mostly on the side of the men, etcetera. Actually, the main character’s struggles, the blurring of the boundaries of animals and humans, in some way or other, seem to refer to the objectification of women, the perceived “lack” one is made to feel, and the symbolic violence that is part of any relationship and perhaps in Atwood’s mind, even more so for women.
As I said, I have difficulty explaining exactly what I found in this book as I constantly feel that I have not quite grasped it. Perhaps this was not the best Atwood to start with. It is not that I disliked it, it is just that I found it very difficult at times. It’s another example of how deceiving the length of books can be. For a book that is relatively short (249 pages in Dutch), especially for Atwood, it kept me occupied for quite a long time. What I missed most of all though, was some form of framework to understand Surfacing. I think the English edition actually has an introduction? I usually skip over them, but reading a version without an introduction made me feel that I could have certainly used one.
Other Opinions: Savidge Reads, Verity’s Virago Venture, Jules’ Book Reviews, More Than Just Magic, Coffeespoons, Katrina’s Reads, Eve’s Alexandria.
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