Surfacing is Margaret Atwood’s second novel about a woman who returns to her isolated hometown in the middle of nowhere, northern Quebec, after her father goes missing. Once there, the unnamed main character falls apart as she confronts her past and present failures in love, loss, and family.
To start, I love Margaret Atwood. She is by far one of my favourite authors, and my favourite Canadian author at that. I’m a huge fan of the Maddaddam Trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Robber Bride.
I have to admit, though, Surfacing is my least favourite novel by Margaret Atwood.
Surfacing is typical Atwood in one very good way: the prose is on point. In my opinion, Atwood always has a fresh, unique, and tantalising way of writing. Her voice is so well-developed and effective that I’ve used it as an inspiration to develop my own voice as a writer. This book is no exception. The voice is strong and the atmosphere she creates is admirable.
I also love Atwood’s exploration of themes. I get a little angsty when books go skimpy on theme exploration, but that it is something Atwood never overlooks. I enjoyed her exploration of isolation, especially the frantic, devolutionary descent into barbarianism that the main character experiences at the end of the novel. As usual, this novel also features commentary on the objectification and alienation of women, a theme that Atwood frequently explores in her work. Considering this novel was published in the 70s, the commentary on the social expectations of women is still very applicable to today, especially in the wake of the recent resurgence of Feminism in the mainstream media and the iCloud photo leak scandal.
I hate to say it, but this novel features very little plot. I understand the idea of creating a novel that is a character study, but the revelations that the main character has at the end of the novel seem to come from nowhere. The main character spends a lot of time reliving her past, being bitter about her failed marriage, and isolating herself from the world around her that when she has her all-you-need-is-love epiphany in the final scene of the novel, it seems out of place and unnatural.
Further, Atwood’s prose is so layered and meaningful that it almost brings the book down. Now, I am a big fan of literary fiction, but holy cow. Atwood’s prose was so layered and so meaningful that at times it seemed to lack even that: real meaning! The metaphors were a bit much and they left me confused and feeling like I had misunderstood what the novel was even about.
I hate to say it, but at some spots, this novel was just boring. I feel like I as a reader couldn’t see the storytelling forest through the literary trees. That is to say that Atwood was so caught up on creating smart, impactful, metaphoric prose that she lost sight of creating an actual story — and I love Atwood for her storytelling. She has a knack for it, but at the end of reading this novel, I realized that Surfacing wasn’t really about telling a story at all.
I guess I’m just a little disappointed, I have to admit. But I guess she’s allowed one book that isn’t my absolute favourite, right? If you’re new to Margaret Atwood though, I’d suggest starting with something else. Perhaps Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale.