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)