Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

An author that seems to be universally loved by three generations of book addicts in the Savidge Family is Margaret Atwood. Both my Gran and my Mother are avid fans and, though it took a little longer with me, I have now followed suit. I was trying to explain on the phone to my Gran at 7am this very morning how I love Atwood’s prose despite the fact that on occasion I find it hard. Not as in hard to read, though that can be true on occasion as she is super intelligent, rather she doesn’t do namby-pamby literary writing, its more focused less floral. Am I making sense, sometimes I can’t tell! Yet with my latest Atwood read ‘Surfacing’ (which I literally picked up on a whim, I was planning on reading Cat’s Eye as my next Atwood read – and yes I do have the lovely green virago edition) I feel like I have seen another side to her work completely.

‘Surfacing’ was Margaret Atwood’s second novel released way back in 1972 and has become something of a cult classic particularly in her homeland of Canada. It tells of an unnamed narrator whose father has disappeared and who has come back to her homeland, a place she visits as rarely as possible, in order to try and find out what has happened to him. She doesn’t come alone but with two close friends, a married couple, Anna and David and her first lover since her divorce Joe. It’s in part the divorce and the shame her family feel that has kept her away though in truth she hates the city she resides in now as much as where she came from.

During her stay in her former childhood home, which is a remote island on a large lake in Northern Quebec and is beautifully drawn for the reader, she inevitably looks back in a mixture of nostalgic joy and regret at her childhood and those formulative years. She then starts to take a greater look at herself, why she only seems to coast in life slightly aimless and never truly contented. That’s at least what you get on the initial surface of the book and yet being Atwood there is so much more to it. It’s a look at what it was to be a woman in Canada after the war and we don’t just see one view, we also get glimpses into Anna’s ‘happy marriage’. It’s a book about nature and what impact it has on the people we are. It’s also about discovery, or rediscovery, of oneself.

It’s a small book with a huge amount to say but Atwood is a true master of getting the most out of a sentence and will produce gems like “that was before we were married and I still listened to what he said” a simple line that conjures up a situation and mood in just those words. She also has the same knack with characters. Often something minimal that a character does is written into the book in such a way that you are instantly given a picture of there personality in one go.

“Anna told us that. Everyone can do a little magic, she reads hands at parties, she says it’s a substitute for conversation. When she did mine she said “Do you have a twin?” I said No. “Are you positive,” she said “because some of your lines are double.” Her index finger traced me: “You had a good childhood but then there’s this funny break.” She puckered her forehead and I said I just wanted to know how long I was going to live, she could skip the rest. After that she told us Joe’s hands were dependable but not sensitive and I laughed, which was a mistake.
From the side he’s like a buffalo on the U.S nickel, shaggy and blunt-snouted, with small clenched eyes and the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction. That’s how he thinks of himself too.: deposed, unjustly. Secretly he would like them to set ip a kind of park for him, like a bird sanctuary. Beautiful Joe.”

I don’t feel that I can do this book justice, which makes me most annoyed with myself, but its such a subtle slow burning book with so much in it that to encapsulate it in less than a thousand words is nigh on impossible. It’s also very, very funny. I cackled a few times especially when Anna would say something terribly un-pc that you yourself would wish to say and follow it with ‘am I awful?’ she’s a great character. I don’t know if its just that Atwood’s style has changed the more she has written or if she has done this with recent books that I haven’t read as yet, but the prose matches the gentle pace, it is almost floral in parts (apt as the book is so much about nature as it is people) but never for the sake of it.

“The wind starts again, brushing over us, the air warm-cool and fluid, the tree’s behind us moving their leaves, the sound ripples; the water gives off an icy light, zinc moon breaking on small waves. Loon voice, each hair on my body lifting with a shiver; the echoes deflect from all sides, surrounding us, here everything echoes.”

Every word counts and everyone has been carefully picked. Well, that’s the feeling you have when reading it and I think its one of my favourite Atwood reads so far. 9/10

I don’t want to compare this book to any others as I am not sure there are any that I could recommend or would feel fair comparing to. So instead I thought I would leave you with two of my most recent favourite Atwood reading experiences below, both completely different from this one. Which is your favourite Atwood novel? Which one must I turn to next? Has anyone noticed the hardness in some novels (maybe bluntness, no – I can’t get the word exactly) compared to others, maybe it’s the more ‘speculative’ novels that have this? Have you yet to try any Atwood?

Good Bones – Margaret Atwood (a great selection of her shorter works, some essays and some stories, which would be a great way in for a beginner to Atwood, or a delightful addition to any Atwood collection a fan may have)
The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (her Booker winner and the novel widely described as her masterpiece so far, though all the works of hers I have read have been a delight. Its hard work and needs patience but the reward for your efforts is fantastic)


Filed under Books of 2010, Margaret Atwood, Review, Virago Books

20 responses to “Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

  1. Fantastic to see a VMC on your blog! I felt a bit disappointed by this one compared to some of Margaret Atwood’s other books – it felt a bit like Cat’s Eye or Alias Grace which I love, but somehow underdeveloped. But I do agree that the prose is immense – Atwood is very talented.

    • I have read a fair few of her books (in the pre blogging days too – I always feel vexed I read some wonders and never popped them on here) and this one really charmed me with its gentle nature. The ending was rather mad but I thought it workd too. Maybe its the fact it was her second novel that made it feel under developed?

  2. I agree that this is a very different Atwood novel and, I thought, very feminist in its outlook (not surprising for the Seventies). I haven’t read any of the other early Atwoods to compare but I have Lady Oracle and The Edible Woman in matching green Virago editions so must read them soon (along with the others in her back catalogue that I haven’t read!)

    Surfacing was exceptionally well-written; it was short but definitely weighty with good experiment with language.

    Which Atwoods have you read? The Handmaid’s Tale is her magnum opus and my favourite; I also loved Alias Grace and The Penelopiad.

    • It is definitley a feminist book. I never feel as a man I can really go into that too much on Savidge Reads. Oddly though in some ways I felt that the narrator had a really masculine side to her nature, that might just be me.

      I read The Handmaid’s Tale for a book group me and Polly ran pre blogging and a few others (will have to go canger at my shelves in a mo, I cant think pre-blogging lol) Blind Assassin, Year of the Flood, this and I am thinking one more.

  3. Being a Canadian I am ashamed to say I’ve only read one Atwood to date. I really do need to read more though, I only ever hear praise about her books. This one sounds lovely.

  4. I think the best thing about Atwood is how different so many of her novels feel – no two books feel all that similar, which I love. I have to admit that Surfacing is one I haven’t read yet. My favourite would have to be The Blind Assassin, though I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was fourteen and it made a huge impact on me (and terrified me, of course).

  5. My mom and I are also big fans of Atwood. I’ve read Blind Assassin and just finished The Handmaid’s Tale. Next up for me is Alias Grace – one my mother just finished and highly recommends.

    • I haven’t read Alias Grace as yet, thats another one of her stonkers isn’t it? I tried The Robber Bride recently and just couldn’t get into it at all but will try again at some point I currently really, really want to Cat’s Eye next.

  6. I love all the attention that Atwood’s been getting in the blogosphere lately! Surfacing had a completely different feel from even her other feminist stuff, partly because it was so subtle. I remember this passage that really got to me, about Anna’s need to have makeup on in front of her husband at all times. Atwood made it seem so terribly sad without having to rub it in.

    • I loved this subtle Atwood, I do love her when she is wonderfully blunt and almost brutal at the same time. I don’t mean that she doesnt write beatifully she always does its just the edge it has to it. I might be the only one who thinks this but its a compliment.

      There were several scenes like the on you mentioned that made me very sad, the whole scene with Anna on the pier with the boys really bothered me.

  7. The Blind Assassin and Cat’s Eye so far are my fave Atwoods, but plan to read others. Alias Grace next. Surfacing sounds very interesting. Atwood is such a versatile writer, her works are so different from one another.

  8. This is an Atwood title I hadn’t heard of- it sound quite different from the others I’ve read, and quite good! I’m going to consider putting it on my TBR.

    • It’s definitley a book I would recommend to lots and lots of people. I think Atwood varies her style and the like in every book and thats what has made her a great.

  9. I find I have to be fit and well to read Attwood as she isnot for the fainthearted. I first read The Blind Assassin which I thought was quite brilliant, then the Robber Bride, equally brilliant but I think the one I have liked hte best so far is Alias Grace which floored me completely at the end. I read The Year of the Flood last year and here is my post on that if you are interested . Not sure if thelink works you may have to cut and paste.

    She is a formidable writer in my opinion and not one to be taken lightly!

    • I think with this one you could pick it up at any point. I know what you mean about the feeling mentally able. Thats one of the things that I love so much about Atwood, shes an author who makes the reader work, its not all spelt out which sometimes can be off putting (I wasnt in the right mood for The Robber Bride when I started it and so saved it for a rainy day – though am not sure where its gone.

  10. ramesh k misra

    reading Surfacing has been a treat. it is not only for Canada,it speaks for all at the receiving end.not for this century,but for all times…a timeless creation! Hats off.

  11. Pingback: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood | Iris on Books

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