Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Surfacing - Margaret Atwood

Surfacing – Margaret Atwood
Virago Press, 1979
I read the Dutch translation “Boven Water”, translated by Aris J. van Braam & published by Rainbow Pockets
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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, CoffeespoonsKatrina’s Reads, Eve’s Alexandria.
Did I miss your post about this book? Let me know and I will add it to the list.

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16 thoughts on “Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

  1. debbierodgers

    This was one of the first Atwood books that I read, many years ago, along with The Edible Woman. After reading those two, I swore off Atwood for decades, returning only to read The Handmaid’s Tale and listen to Alias Grace. Both were ‘okay’ (certainly better than either of the early ones) and perhaps a better place to start with her. I’m not convinced, though, that I’ll ever read more of her books.

    It’s entirely possible that nothing was lost in translation here.

  2. Charlie

    You’ve included just the right amount of plot and theme details, this sounds really worth reading! I’m inclined to make it my first Atwood but from what you’ve said, I might aim to stick with The Handmaiden’s Tale.

  3. Elena

    I had never heard of this title even though I love Atwood. I know she can be too complex or too dark, but there is always room for the reader’s own interpretation. If you want to try something less complex, I highly recommend you Alias Grace, one of my favourite books ever.

  4. zibilee

    Atwood can be hit or miss with me, but if you really want to try a good one, that is dystopian without feeling to claustrophobic, try The Handmaid’s Tale. It was my favorite of hers, and really tells a tremendously moving story, without being overly graphic or discomfiting. Nice review today. You explain yourself very well in regards to how you ended up feeling with this one.

  5. Martha McFadden

    I was interested in your reactions and explication of the book. I have read quite a few books by Atwood and this is the only one I really did not like. I do not like magical realism or anything close to it, and I felt this book relied on shifts between reality and more hallucinatory magic in a way that felt like too much contrivance to no particular end. I read it long ago, but always wondered why people liked it. Now one person has told me. Perhaps I’ll give it another go around after I read War and Peace and others in mu queue.

  6. Stefanie

    This is my favorite Atwood book along with Alias Grace, and it is indeed a difficult book even when you read it in English! It sounds to me though like you got it pretty well. It is one of those books that improves more and more on rereading because there is too much there to understand in just one read.

  7. Martha McFadden

    Geez! I also really disliked Alias Grace. Found it pretty pretentious and tedious. I wonder if people who like Surfacing and Alias Grace just generally have very different taste from mine.

  8. Helen

    I’ve just finished reading my first Atwood book, The Handmaid’s Tale, and loved it. This one does sound intriguing but I think I’ll leave it until I’ve read some of her other books first.

  9. kissacloud

    I’m sorry your first Atwood was a bit difficult, Iris. She can be really strange. I haven’t read Surfacing but I really did love The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale. Currently reading Alias Grace for your Advent with Atwood and so far I’m liking it a lot as well. My intro to her was Cat’s Eye, which I think was a perfect one because it’s easier though not any less complex in plot, only that it felt a little bit YA, sort of, to me, at least, back in the day. A kid book that is an adult book, sort of. With regards to your thoughts on Surfacing, you actually quite intrigued me and maybe I will try it in the future.

  10. pburt

    This was my first Atwood novel although I had read some of her poetry. Even though I read it over 25 years ago, it still haunts me and I find myself thinking about it. I have toyed with rereading it but it was such a visceral experience the first time, I am unsure. It is one of my favorite of her books.

  11. Jenny

    Aaaaa, I am frightened of trying more Atwood and discovering I don’t like Atwood. That would be really sad! I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, and I haven’t been able to get through any Atwood book I’ve started reading since then. I’m concerned The Handmaid’s Tale may have been a fluke.


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