Surfacing * Margaret Atwood Book Review

“When you can’t tell the difference between your own pleasure and your pain then you’re an addict.”

Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices. Surfacing is a work permeated with an aura of suspense, complex with layered meanings, and written in brilliant, diamond-sharp prose. Here is a rich mine of ideas from an extraordinary writer about contemporary life and nature, families and marriage, and about women fragmented… and becoming whole.

https_%2F%2Fdogeardiscs.files.wordpress.com%2F2012%2F06%2Fatwood-surfacing-can.jpgThis reminded me of Atwood’s The Edible Woman, dealing with a young woman who is so terrified of marriage that it causes her to lose her touch with reality and fall deeper and deeper into mental illness.  It becomes obvious early in Surfacing on that we are stuck in the mind of a mentally ill young woman. Her grasp on reality is oneiric and muddied, leading to the whole novel being written in a semi-lucid and dreamlike style

But the way I see it, our girl is in the process of “surfacing” – which to me is someone coming out of the depths, to breathe air. She’s rejecting the world she came from, rejecting marriage, kids, religion, French Canadians, Americans (SO anti-American… this I gotta say I didn’t quite understand), career, and sex (described several times as death). She morphs into her true self, where titles, statuses, even forms are not necessary to define her identity.

I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place

cvr9781451686883_9781451686883_hr.jpgThere are passages of this novel which would be better described as poetry than prose, as our narrator seemingly slips in and out of her reality and into a chimerical and other-worldly state. The novel is also almost oppressively atmospheric with dirt and grit rammed underneath its fingernails. What I’m basically saying is that if this were adapted into a movie today it would have a lot of Sufjan Stevens on the soundtrack.

Our identity is formed and guided as much by the things we have lost as by the things we still have. In fact, sometimes what we lose sticks more heavily in our thoughts, preventing us from enjoying what we have at the moment. Facing the trauma of a forced loss – an involuntary abortion – the young woman moves away from the life she created for herself as a grown-up person, and lets go of civilised behaviour to find back to her natural roots. She becomes one with earth, fire, water and air, loses touch with modern life – “American” is her generalised term for the half-machines that take over the natural habitats of the planet. Letting her wild interior surface, she heals from the wound she has carried underneath a facade of superficial adaptation.

In an act of faith in the power of mysterious nature, she creates an auto-da-fé of her past self, burning the traces of her old identity while reinventing a person ready to live and to give life. She is surfacing. From hell over purgatory and heaven back to life, in a dantesque journey of bizarre proportions. In the woods, in the water, in the fire, in the air, she finds the self she lost:

“I learned about religion the way most children learned about sex, [in the schoolyard]. . . . They terrified me by telling me there was a dead man in the sky watching everything I did and I retaliated by explaining where babies came from. Some of their mothers phoned mine to complain, though I think I was more upset than they were: they didn’t believe me but I believed them.”

Fantastic novel of introspection and unresolved pain. Beautifully clear and fragile, like a bubble surfacing in the water

“The trouble is all in the knob at the top of our bodies. I’m not against the body or the head either: only the neck, which creates the illusion that they are separate. The language is wrong, it shouldn’t have different words for them. If the head extended directly into the shoulders like a worm’s or a frog’s without that constriction, that lie, they wouldn’t be able to look down at their bodies and move them around as if they were robots or puppets; they would have to realize that if the head is detached from the body both of them will die.”

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