Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Disregarding plot character etc for a moment, this book succeeds as an amazing piece of descriptive writing. The rural Canadian village and island cabin of the nameless protagonist’s youth is well realized and vivid. The air feels wet, the mosquitoes buzz. I was equal parts eager to visit, and creeped out by the place. There is a sinister bent that runs through the novel’s setting.

The plot is simple: Late 20s, unreliable narrator returns to her childhood home with her pathetic friends in search of the missing father she has not seen in many years. The setup is reminiscent of Winter’s Bone (the movie, never read the book), but the plot is secondary to the main character’s increasing confusion/disillusionment with her city life and friends and delusive reflection on her ex-husband. Also madness. A disproportionate amount of books I have read by a woman about a woman seem to involve madness.

I spent a significant chunk of this book thinking the protagonist was too smart to hang around these stupid men. The last fourth or so of the book clears this up a little, or makes it more believable as the narrator unravels, but no one is particularly sympathetic in this book and her boyfriend and the accompanying couple are terrible, to themselves and each other. It’s clever because it feels vaguely over the top yet they are still believable and useful to the societal and gender issues key to the books thematic exploration. But anyway, it’s not just thematic. Plot wise, the main character needs to be a victim before she can self-actualize and realize that purposely making herself powerless is just an excuse she uses to pretend her actions can’t hurt anyone.

That’s the key takeaway from the novel, I think; not that running away from a banal, self-and-other destructive society to a primal, unspoiled retreat would be swell, but that the latter is a pointless gesture and probably not much less (if any) harmful than the former. And as evidenced by the “stupid Americans” of the novel, the latter does not exist anyway.

This is the second Atwood novel I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale was the first, and I wasn’t blown away there. I liked Surfacing much more and thought the writing was excellent. Atwood’s detached, cold writing really shines here with her detached, cold protagonist in her detached, cold setting.

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