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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
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Surfacing (1972)

by Margaret Atwood

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I have to admit, some of Atwood's work is disturbing on several levels, some is a little out there, but thought provoking, & some stories are just kind of sad & thought provoking at the same time. This is one of them.

When our unnamed artist gets notified that her father in Canada has disappeared from his cabin, she & her significant other, along with another couple, travel to the wilds to try to find him or what's happened to him. As she spends this time in the wilds she grew up in, we learn more of her upbringing, & the past that she has to face in order to surface from her self imposed disconnect with her feelings. ( )
  Lisa.Johnson.James | Apr 11, 2014 |
Another victory by Margaret Atwood. This is a fantastic novel, everything from the language to the imagery to the depth and breadth of the book is amazing. I really felt like I was inside the character's head. The feminist undertones are present throughout but it isn't until the climax of the novel that you feel their full implications. There do seem to be some anti-American sentiments in the book, but by the end I think the Americans are more symbolic of waste and a disrespect for nature than anything else. Great great great book. ( )
  steadfastreader | Mar 18, 2014 |
Though only loosely fantastic, Atwoods Surfacing is a complex, character-driven feminist tale about relationships, patriarchy, nationalism, and the human psyche. It follows an unnamed narrator who returns with her friends to her childhood home to search for her missing father, who she assumes has either died or run off into the woods. As she tries to piece together her father’s last days from the clues left in his cabin, she is confronted with her friends’ abusive marriage, her recent and distant past, and the crippling expectations of post-WW2 society (and the changes brought on by the Quiet Revolution in 1960s Quebec). Though not intended as horror, Surfacing explores its themes with a sense of impending terror, such that the final moments, which I won’t discuss in any detail here, are profoundly fantastic, with the character drama forming the root of an exploding, terror-driven tree.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Though I define this book as feminist in form — a definition I suspect Atwood would gladly accept — I should also clarify that it is not necessarily a literary manifesto of sorts. The narrator is, in many respects, quite unlikable, and Atwood has been upfront about the fact that one should not take this book as a feminism she advocates, but one of a sea of possibilities. The narrator presents herself as coldly distant and frequently engages in behaviors that are, from the perspective of the reader, seemingly manipulative. The setup, though, is a kind of literary trick, as the details of the narrator’s life draw into sharp focus the real issue here: it is not that the narrator is cold, but rather that she has intentionally distanced herself from a culture to which she no longer wishes to be a part. The development of this theme is slow and deliberate. Here, the relationships are established and exposed for their artificiality and conformity. The narrator may never become fully likable, but she certainly starts to make sense as the people around her engage in behaviors that expose their own contradictions and reveal to the narrator that her distance is justified. This is one of the novel’s strengths and flaws. Surfacing uses its characters for extensive metaphors, but that cold distance also means the narrator becomes distanced from the reader and the people surrounding her become almost like caricatures. Perhaps this was intentional, but I did find that it limited the effectiveness of some of the more emotional components of the novel, such as the narrator’s struggle with pregnancy and her perspective on reproductive rights.

That said, the novel’s thematic concerns are perhaps its strongest components. Though the use of “Americans” in Surfacing is likely to annoy actual Americans, once you realize that they are being used as an extended metaphor about imperialism and the massive social changes that was occurring during the Quiet Revolution — or, for that matter, the long exploration of Canadian identity throughout the novel — it makes sense why America becomes a kind of cultural bogeyman. In an era of American dominance on the global sphere, they are the most easily recognizable of cultural symbols for the period. I appreciated the deceptive simplicity of this particular metaphor, particularly as it provided an outlet for my educational interest in Canadian literature as “American Literature.” It is also this theme which facilitates the suffocating sensation found in the final moments — a feeling of endless dread, of isolationism and resistance.

Likewise, Surfacing benefits from a kind of brooding symbolism which leads us, if not smoothly, then certainly with a forceful disposition to a conclusion that is, as I mentioned, fantastic in its brand of psychological terror. The “Americans” thing is also part of this symbology, but the novel also provides natural (life, death, landscape, nature) elements as symbols of both the narrative’s direction towards the establishment of a “form” of Canadian identity (rooted in something definitely “not Western” or “not American”) and the conflict between what the narrator perceives as life as it should be and the rapid-fire destructiveness of the modern world (from which she seemingly has escaped). There’s a compelling connection to be made here to Margaret Laurence’s “The Loons” (another great work of Canadian literature), which explores many of the same issues. Sometimes, these symbols are a little too “in your face,” but they are more often than not helpful extensions of the narrator’s mindset and provide a necessary clarity of their own.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Surfacing. The best books are those that force you to think: about your culture, about people, about the social landscape, etc. Surfacing is that kind of book, and one I think readers who appreciate brooding realism or a complex feminist narrative will enjoy. ( )
  Arconna | Mar 6, 2014 |
Atwood’s first published novel sees her get off to a good start with this eerie tale of a woman returning to her childhood home in the Canadian wilderness in search of her lost father.

There’s a foreboding right from the very start of the novel as the prose keeps you very much captive inside the thoughts of the protagonist. And she’s a broody sort who becomes increasingly paranoid as the novel progresses. It does not end well for her. Or, perhaps it does. Hard to say.

What you can be sure of is that there’s an awful lot going on here in so short a book. As an experienced Atwood reader, I can see how all the elements that would make her later novels shine are there, buried in the dust of her early years as a novelist.

The novel’s central theme is identity, particularly identity formed by places and experiences in them as a child. The landscape itself is detached from the people who enter it at the start of the story. By the end, it has taken over. I couldn’t help thinking that this would make a good film. I think Meryl Streep or, if she’s busy, perhaps Kate Winslet could pull off the main character.

Well worth a read and a good, short introduction to Atwood. ( )
  arukiyomi | Feb 23, 2014 |
Loved this book. I really identified with the main character here, her reactions to the brutality of humanity towards the wild, her empathy with the skinned crane, her disdain for her friends and their frivolity. I loved the dark tone. ( )
  loewen | Feb 19, 2014 |
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I can't believe I'm on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire.
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Book description
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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385491050, Paperback)

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.  Surfacing is a work permeated with an aura of suspense, complex with layered meanings, and written in brilliant, diamond-sharp prose.  Here is a rich mine of ideas from an extraordinary writer about contemporary life and nature, families and marriage, and about women fragmented...and becoming whole.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:30 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A woman searching for her missing father travels with her lover and another couple to a remote island in northern Quebec, where they encounter violence and death.

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