Updated on June 2, 2016
18. ‘Surfacing’ by Margaret Atwood
Surfacing is one of Margaret Atwood’s most famous novels, and yet I’d never heard of it until I found it in a cupboard on holiday. Atwood’s name was enough to sell it to me, of course, and it’s so short that I got through it in under two days.
This book is about a woman who travels with her lover, Joe, and her friends Anna and David, back to her childhood home in the heart of the Canadian wilderness to try to find out what has happened to her missing father. Interlaced with the present-day story are the woman’s memories about growing up with her brother in this lakeside house, as well as her more recent past as a mother in which she abandoned her family.
This story reveals things gradually, like clearing back another layer of vegetation to see what is on the other side more clearly, piece by piece. This style of storytelling is wholly appropriate, of course, because the setting is one of dense forests and murky waters. Atwood’s portrayal of the outdoor life is vivid and immediate – we see the black flies, the mosquitoes, the overgrown trails and the primitive outhouse and the meat buried in the earth to keep it cool. Without a doubt you feel like you are there.
There’s also a strong Heart of Darkness undercurrent to the story. Not only does going back to this house churn up old memories of forgotten horrors, but it also makes the characters act in strange and often dark ways. There are hints at magic, as if the landscape and its history can speak directly to our narrator, and there are some pretty disturbing scenes surrounding sex, power and madness. The cracks in all the relationships begin to show quite early on, and they fall apart incredibly quickly as all the characters abandon social constructs and turn into hyper-sexual, animalistic versions of themselves.
Animals are present throughout the story, and are usually shown through the narrator’s attitude towards them. She starts out thinking fairly practically about them and being able to do things like kill a fish when the others cannot, but she becomes increasingly squeamish and philosophical about killing. By the end, animals and nature have taken on an almost holy significance for her, and the ‘gods’ she imagines are watching over her place more and more restrictive boundaries on where she can and cannot go (man-made things are out of bounds) and what she can and cannot eat.
Surfacing is an utterly fascinating book which bears rereading, partly because it’s such a vortex of a story, and partly because it can be so obscurely written in places that the main facts can seem a little vague (although I don’t doubt this was exactly the point). But even if the story itself is sometimes confusing, what this book does best is create an unforgettable atmosphere.
“Anything we could do to the animals we could do to each other: we practised on them first.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.