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Surfacing (1972)

by Margaret Atwood

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3,800902,272 (3.37)319
A young woman returns to northern Quebec to the remote island of her childhood, with her lover and two friends, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her father. Flooded with memories, she begins to realise that going home means entering not only another place but another time. As the wild island exerts its elemental hold and she is submerged in the language of the wilderness, she sees that what she is really looking for is her own past.… (more)
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Second book in my 2020 Margaret Atwood Project. ( )
  francesanngray | Jan 15, 2020 |
Surfacing , first published in 1972, gets a gig in 1001 Books You Must Etc because it is a novel(la) of belonging and displacement told with remarkable precision and economy…
… preoccupied by the question of boundaries: of language, of national identity, of ‘home’, of gender, and of the body. The novel[la] shows that it is not only refugees or armies who cross borders but the whole gigantic machinery of capital and the mass media. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 Edition, p. 630)
Nonetheless, Surfacing reads like an intensely personal story. The unnamed narrator has come to a remote part of Quebec to find her father who has mysteriously disappeared. She hasn’t had a great relationship with her parents, and she’s been living an urban life while her father, now a widower, has pursued his obsessions in the cabin where she spent much of her childhood, living off the land. But as the flashbacks reveal, #Understatement her marriage and motherhood (undertaken for all the wrong reasons and emblematic of women’s lack of choices in that era) didn’t work out, and her new relationship with Joe is in trouble too. He wants what she doesn’t want to be.
Along with naked hostility to all things American, this novel is overtly hostile to men. The narrator’s companions David and Anna appear to be happy, but the isolation of this trip, which was meant to be brief, is a catalyst for a marriage in trouble too. David is a bully and a womaniser and his intimidation of Anna is repulsive. Anna OTOH isn’t willing to venture away from what he expects of her at all. (She even gets up early to do her face because he doesn’t like to see her without makeup). Joe is childish and sulky when he doesn’t get his own way, and seems to have no grasp of the anxiety that pervades the narrator’s mindset. As for father, the narrator seeks in the cabin for any sign that he loved her, but not even the title deeds which would form her meagre inheritance can be found. There’s nobody to like in this story…
Yet she finds redemption for these parents, despite their imperfections:
I try to think for the first time what it was like to be them: our father, islanding his life, protecting both us and himself, in the midst of war and in a poor country, the effort it must have taken to sustain his illusions of reason and benevolent order, and perhaps he didn’t. Our mother, collecting the seasons and the weather and her children’s faces, the meticulous records that allowed her to omit the other things, the pain and the isolation and whatever it was she was fighting against, something in a vanished history. I can never know. They are out of reach now, they belong to themselves, more than ever. (p.184)
To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2019/11/01/surfacing-by-margaret-atwood-novellas-in-nov... ( )
  anzlitlovers | Nov 1, 2019 |
The first person narrator, who never tells us her name, leaves "the city" to return to the isolated French Canadian countryside where she grew up to see if she can find her father, who has disappeared into the bush. With her are friends David and Anna, who she hasn't known very long, but who have a car and agreed to take her where she needs to go; and Joe, her current lover (apparently one of a fairly long string--she refers to him as "this one"), a hirsute man of very few words. As you might expect, this is a journey of discovery for the narrator as she revisits old haunts, seeks out places her father might have gone searching for ancient native paintings, learns unpleasant things about the couple she had viewed as happily married, and wrestles with her own past. Early on it's clear she had been hiding things from her parents; soon we wonder what she's hiding from us, and even from herself. As time passes, she pushes civilization further and further from herself, along with rational thought, until we glimpse an almost feral creature desperate to dissolve into the natural world. There are some brutal images and abundant symbolism in this powerful work. Atwood's characters are brilliantly drawn; David, a self-absorbed jackass who punctuates his conversation with cartoon character laughs, simply made my skin crawl; Anna, a woman terrified of losing her husband, obnoxious as he is, who contrives never to let him see her without make-up, made me want to introduce her to some real people, male and female; Joe, a cipher, really, who is not up to understanding his lover, but tries his best, might be the most sympathetic of the lot. My one quibble with this novel is that I found the ending a bit unsatisfactory. I thought we were going to end up in one place, and apparently we did not, although I feel we should have. (Yes, I know that's clear as mud...sorry, but I can't do better without being terribly spoilerish.)
Review written in April 2016 ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Oct 17, 2019 |
Uncompromisingly bleak, but written so vividly it's hard to pull away from.

Similar to a Shane Meadows film, it's possible to appreciate the quality of the novel whilst simultaneously being unable to recommend it to anyone, knowing that you would be putting them through something that isn't "enjoyable".

The writing style is very much towards the poetic end of the spectrum. Much of the character development is drawn from glimpses of an internal monologue looking out at the world (from the protagonist's detached perspective) meshed with inward-looking fragments of memory and emotion.

I'm sure this book has been analysed to death in a million classrooms... once you get past the depressing plot and basic interactions between the dysfunctional characters on the book's surface there are so many interesting motifs, themes and concepts bundled together, in particular ideas about what it means to be a human and what value (or harm) modern societies bring us. There are also recurring themes of invasion and intrusion: emotional, physical, societal and military.

Worth reading. ( )
  Sam.Prince | May 7, 2019 |
I loved the first three-quarters of the book. The main character was layered and the era provided us with a way to scrape off her skin until she was raw and bleeding. I'd forgotten how blunt and nasty the end of the '70s could be. That's when main character turned painful and to be honest, annoying. Her abrupt descent into madness and subsequent surfacing happened too quickly.

Atwood's writing is beautiful, but I think I'm taking a break for a bit. ( )
  authenticjoy | Mar 29, 2019 |
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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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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