An unnamed narrator, her new lover Joe, and a married couple, David and Anna, travel into the Canadian wilderness in search of the narrator’s missing father. They come across his abandoned home and settle down as the narrator moves through nostalgic memories of childhood and unspecific memories of her recently failed marriage. As they move through their search, far more is revealed about her past when her mind begins to relive certain traumas that she once tried to repress.
Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing is a beautiful, aesthetically driven dive into insanity and gender roles. Her language is magnificent and she chooses a style that is completely unique to her. The themes are prescient today and they were when the book was originally written; yet, something still lacks in the pages which fail to allow the novel to reach any form of greatness. Her language is at equal times frustrating and poetic. The style in Surfacing is an internal monologue, a stream-of-conscious, that uses commas as both their grammatical intention and as periods or thought-breaks. It is aesthetically gorgeous at times, such as in sentences like: “Newly broken stubs, wood and pith exposed like splintered bones, ferns trampled, they’d been here, their tractor-tread footsteps dinting the mud path in front of me like excavations, craters” (pg. 137). Yet, so much of the time it also feels like it doesn’t belong – as if it was a chosen style and deemed important to stick with even when it felt overbearing and awkward to read.
The themes, as I said, are incredibly prescient. They tackle ideas of feminism ranging from general women’s rights to patriarchal control to abortions. They equally tackle ideas of nationalism from the radical to the more subtle. The look into feminist ideas is done excellently as the characters play off of each other with, at first, no clear delineation between their philosophies. As the novel progresses, what were once sly jokes are transformed into ideologies of power, what were silences of unhappiness are shown to be a building rage which relentlessly fights for dominance. And, in our main character, what were repressed and altered memories now come out in primal and horrifying ways – she becomes a creature akin to what these men always viewed her as.
Again, as with the language, these themes are well explored but seem to never connect in the way they were intended. They were explored and then restated in less moving ways or compared with one another with no clarity on the intention. To me, it feels like an early attempt to discuss intersectionality without the proper tools to convey it. Still, the novel is worth reading for those who want to see Atwood at her more poetic and experimental stage. Its moments of power certainly outweigh the negatives after completing the novel, yet while you’re reading it, it may at times prove to be somewhat of a chore.
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