Margaret Atwood’s huge popularity is no great mystery. She has become, as we all know, a literary mahatma; with a back catalogue to out-rival many and some intriguing dips and dives into all manner of genre and medium; poetry, children’s fiction, sci-fi … you name it, Atwood seems to have been there.
Not all of her books have had the earth-shattering significance and lasting effect (certainly for me) that the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has, however, she is an undoubtedly excellent and, if not excellent, perplexing writer. I know where I am with her and quite frankly, just one good book simply wasn’t enough to recover from the thrills of Gaskell month. Surfacing is a fairly early offering of Atwood’s, one that I had never seen before and to be honest, wouldn’t have necessarily been too fussed about reading had it not been 50p in my local charity book shop! (Naughty!)
An unnamed woman is returning to her childhood home in a remote area of rural Quebec to find her missing father, accompanied by her so-called ‘friends’ and partner Joe (although in reality these people seem to be mere acquaintances; vehicles of Atwood’s thrown in to facilitate discussion). What starts off as a road trip becomes a voyage of self-discovery for our narrator as she returns back to her roots; eventually reverting completely back to nature itself.
The stark difference between Susan Hill and Margaret Atwood’s prose (I read both this and The Small Hand on the same day, something I don’t often get the time to do) really shocked me. Atwood’s writing is on a completely different level; expressing things in such an ingenious and intricate way that I am sure, should I ever want to, that I could never even begin to replicate it. Our heroine in this story is ‘nameless’ in every sense of the word; symbolic of something that I felt in the end I had really failed to understand. She willingly becomes completely distant and separate from her companions, both physically and mentally; wrapping herself up in the past; her family and her landscape..
Atwood addresses themes in this book that, courtesy perhaps of my my age and nationality, I just found quite difficult to connect with. Although certain characters (such as one of party; David) clearly reflect a certain political flavour and period, I started to find the reference to ‘f***g Yanks’ etc fairly irritating and I just don’t know enough about Quebec and its history to sympathise, a sentiment helped along by the detached narrator. The remote landscape and desire to connect with it however, I can completely understand; being a great lover of nature, animals, and isolation from the trappings of the modern world myself.
Some pretty hard hitting, feminist themes are also at play here; abortion and our relationship with our fathers/partners/mother nature being just some of them and I did find the contrast between our lonely, secretive narrator and the bullied, superficial Anna very interesting; Anna in particular leaving me wondering what darkness lay beyond her cracked mask of makeup.
There is an ever-pervading sense of sadness in this short novel, one that worked well in such a foreboding, ‘Lord of the Flies-esque’ setting; with the narrator eventually betraying a wildness and loss of identity quite comparable to Piggy and the gang. There is a sharp change in tone within the closing chapters of the book that completely knocked me for six at first and, although I think this is worth a read to form your own opinions (and also because it’s Margaret Atwood!) I felt a little abandoned by the author as she ran off on a wild tangent, with her poor little readers sprinting to catch up and left feeling, well, rather baffled by the end!