Posted by: beansai | October 5, 2007

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood brings another astonishingly complex novel that explores the psychological aspects of modern life through the story of a woman searching for her missing father (and ultimately the emotional parts of herself that she has shut away), with three companions in her childhood home in the Canadian bush, severed from daily life in the city. From the first person point of view, the reader learns about fractions of the main character’s life through tattered and distorted memories, until it slowly begins to unravel from the inside out, and she slowly learns to decipher the defensive walls she has raised around her own remembrances. Amongst her companions are her two married friends that initially maintain the facade of a happy couple and her live-in boyfriend.

Sifting through the psychological effects of failed relationships, abortions, and the contrasts of being raised in an organic, atheist home versus the higher percentage of religious people and the modern lifestyle of the city, Atwood provides us with rich scenery, intricately layered characters, and a fresh view on our innate connection to nature and how that has become tainted. Atwood’s main character is internally driven and holds back a great deal of information from her friends and lover. They don’t even know that she has never been married or had an abortion, her past is veiled from them and many of the details are unclear even to herself. Staying in her father’s home, her childhood home, opens the doors of memories and slowly the truth unfolds, though we are never given all the details. The author provides enough information to make the characters intriguing without bogging the power of this novel down with every single detail of their lives.

I found many parallels between this novel’s main character and the main character of one of Margaret Atwood’s other novels Cat’s Eye. This one was written before Cat’s Eye and while there are some similarities between a couple of episodes and some of the characteristics of the main family, they move in distinctively different directions. This novel really is about being in the head of someone who struggles with relationships from early on. Not simply physical or emotional relationships with other humans, but with her relationship with nature and the modern world. Atwood manages to strip the main character of her habitually human mannerisms and returns her to the wild, becoming one with nature. This transformation comes on gradually, and the progression of nature’s influence becomes obviously stronger as you read on. There is a distinct dislike of modern tendencies to treat everything as property and to dispose of it as readily as they claimed it and this novel is a calling out of that returning to nature through a seductive and spiritual connection, though it seems like insanity.

Now, towards the end of this novel the main character seems to go off her rocker, committing herself to communing with the dead and living as a wild animal rather than a human. At the very end she seems to come to her senses, but it is left open, without any affirmative as to whether or not she rejoins her friends back in civilization. If my comments on this book seem sporadic, I’d have to admit that the book read in this way as well. While the general story line flowed in a linear fashion, it was so often interrupted by the past, which ran fluidly into the present, coupled with Atwood’s signature style of sentence structure that is had a bit of a choppy, stream-of-consciousness quality to it. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I think it only added to the mood of the book, but it has made it difficult to organize a fully cohesive review. This is one of Margaret Atwood’s earlier novels, and while I enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down (I read all 200 pages in two sittings), I don’t think it rivals the maturity and completeness of her later novels. It is definitely the prelude to Atwood’s instinctive genius at interpreting modern life and the psychology of people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I admit, I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s and I will shamelessly recommend any of her books, including this one.

Note: When I finished this book, I couldn’t recall ONCE learning the name of the main character. I am going to scan back through and see if maybe it was my mistake, or whether Margaret Atwood has actually named her. I’ll update this when I find out.

*Now I know I have done tons of Atwood reviews (and I only have more to do), but this book was actually a reading for one of my classes, so…. 😀



  1. I read this book for A-Level English and I’m currently in the middle of my exams, hoping to go on to study Creative Writing at university this year.
    As difficult as I found this novel, it has been extremely helpful and has allowed me to really improve as a writer. And as for the protagonist remaining unnamed throughout, this could be a link to her confusion in identity. But of course, this is just my theory!

  2. I LoVE ATWOOD!!!!
    My first introduction to her was with Cat’s Eye , it was my set book for A-level literature, the rest of the class loathed it, but i found it strangely comforting in some way. I now have all of her books and poetry… I am re-reading Surfacing and yes there are stricking similarities with Cat’s Eye, and No i have yet to learn the main characters name… I’m not a fan of books being made into movies, but i think Cat’s Eye should be remade, and also Surfacing…..and maybe Margaret herself could do the casting, direction and screenplay… here’s wishing….

    Thats all from me in my corner… x

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