Erin M.'s Reviews > Surfacing

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
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Jul 20, 11

bookshelves: canadian
Recommended to Erin M. by: Self
Recommended for: Adults Prepared for a Heavy Read
Read in July, 2010 — I own a copy, read count: 1

As a Canadian, I am ashamed to say this is the first book by Margaret Atwood I have read, though in school we studied some of her poetry. Knowing she is an acclaimed and accomplished writer, I went into it with a critical eye, as I always do with a high level of expectation. I must say I was blown away.

As a rule, I'm generally not a fan of present tense writing. I'm not sure why, but in other books it never fails to annoy me. This is the first time I've seen it used so effectively; I forgot about it and just enjoyed the story. Instead of impeding the flow, she uses it to capture a sense of immediacy with succinct staccato sentences that arrest the attention. Not a single word is wasted. Each new sentence holds a sea of meaning only unlocked if given thought. Surfacing is not a book to be read quickly.

We are given little information about the main character and narrator. To the end, she remains unnamed. We are given only a single detail about her physical appearance close to the end (her eyes are blue.) The details provided about her past are told from her perspective, and it becomes apparent she doesn't see her past clearly. Much of what is said is written poetically, more implied than actually said, so the significance can easily be missed.

Our unnamed character travels to a beautiful, remote island in Quebec with her boyfriend and another couple to look for clues about her father's disappearance. Although her friends know she is looking for her missing father, she either keeps them unaware, or feels unable to express the conflict raging inside her. While the four are sequestered in the wilderness, her sanity begins to unravel. Even early on, we are given the impression this character has problems, because some of her thoughts are quite disjointed, but through this we can also see she is an intelligent and highly complex person. We see she is going through an identity crisis of sorts, and feels disconnected from the people, places, and things around her. This becomes even further exacerbated when she recalls a traumatic event from her past; something she has not forgiven herself for. From there she descends into a quiet internal madness.

We also see that she has probably deliberately chosen to surround herself with people who are inadvertently shallow. She doesn't know them very well, but she seems to know they aren't the type to inquire into her life too deeply. This is how she wants it. But away from the stimulation and rush of civilization, she also sees a side of them she hasn't seen before. This seems to disappoint her, because she wants to believe in purity; if not in herself, at least for someone else. Consequently, she begins to distrust and pull away from them too.

There are many meanings that can be drawn from this book, but it is best explored by the individual. Atwood writes with startling clarity. There are many tidbits of deep insight I found quite shocking, unvarnished truths laid bare in new and unexpected ways. The writing is top-notch, always poetic, descriptive, and multi-dimensional. Reading Surfacing is like peeling the layers of an onion. Sometimes it can be disturbing... certainly nothing a child should attempt, but well worth the read.

I will definitely read it again, but probably not for awhile. It's pretty heavy reading... I couldn't imagine what writing it must have been like!
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