'Surfacing' is the first Atwood book I've read since 'The Handmaid's Tale' fully freaked me out at uni, and after a friend of mine perceptively commented the other day about the contraceptive-insurance-hoohaa moving the US towards a reality not dissimilar to the'The Handmaid's Tale', I thought the time was ripe to read some more.
This is one of Atwood's first, published in 1972, after the publication of 'The Edible Woman' and six volumes of poetry, and concerns a young woman returning to the remotest wilds of northern Quebec with her friends and lover to try and find out what happened to her father, who has been missing for quite a time. Things descend after they arrive, both in terms of their personal relationships and also the protagonist's state of mind, as she arrives as a relatively well-adjusted city dweller, haunted by a failed relationship and various things to do with a baby, to something slightly less civilised, shall we say?
The way this book is written is quite arresting: Atwood uses a first person, agrammatical, stream-of-consciousness style to tell the story in a fragmented, subjective way, which leaps from topic to topic, and from present day to the protagonist's childhood and back again, without interruption or pause. This means that several incidents are recounted in her memory, each time with a different slant on what happened, which means by the end of the story you have a totally different idea of her past from the one originally presented. It's totally immersive, especially as I think it's one of the few books I've read written entirely in the present tense:
'In the middle of the night silence wakes me, the rain has stopped. Blank dark, I can see nothing, I try to move my hands but I can't. The fear arrives in waves, like footfalls, it has no center; it encloses me like armour, it's my skin that is afraid, rigid. They want to get in, they want me to open the windows, the door, they can't do it by themselves. I'm the only one, they are depending on me but I don't know any longer who they are; however they come back they won't be the same, they will have changed. I willed it, I called to them, that they should arrive is logical; but logic is a wall, I built it, on the other side is terror.
Above on the roof is the finger-tapping of water dripping from the trees. I hear breathing, withheld, observant, not in the house but all around it.'
This style, for the main part of the book, sits on the right side of histrionic, but there were a few pivotal moments in the plot when, for clarity's sake, I wished that she'd just say what had happened and be done with it. But I guess that's not the point of the book: our perception is prismed by hers, and the story of the book is the story that's evolving inside her head. This is offset by a great evocation of the nature environment, which spoke of a deep familiarity and affection for the water-soaked, threatening landscape in which the story is set.
This book was deeply satisfying for other reasons as well: it had endlessly interesting things to say about femininity, sex, motherhood and relationships, and also about civilisation vs. our nature state, as well as the differences and similarities between humans and animals. It's intelligent, well-considered and non-judgemental, as well as liberated and serious, and I found it entirely instructive spending time at the feet of Madame Atwood. In fact, this is the kind of fully formed, female-penned read that makes me disappointed by comparison when Katie Ward just moons over paintings or entire swathes of people think of female writing as just tales of the pursuit and the temporary acquisition of men.
I really enjoyed this book, and have added a good portion of her back list to my Classics Club list above.
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Virago Press
Date: originally published in 1972; reprint from 2009
Format: Paperback, 251 pages,and I bought it.