Wednesday, June 22, 2011

book list: surfacing

I finished Surfacing by Margaret Atwood on Monday. It was a bizarre read -- not that I should be surprised at all any more by Atwood. It took me a while to adjust to the way the short novel (just over 200 pages) was written; I kept putting it down because Surfacing definitely requires a careful reader to slip into the style and understand the nuances of the text. It's the type of book that should be read in chunks, not snippets, or all at once; unfortunately I started it before going back to Sun Prairie, so I kept having to put it down and pick it up again.

Surfacing is the story of an unnamed female protagonist who accompanies her boyfriend and their friends, a married couple, to her childhood home in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. The protagonist is looking for her father, who has gone missing, though if she discovers that he is there she plans on leaving without saying anything to him. She alludes to the fact that her father and her late mother didn't understand her recent choices, including a marriage, divorce and abandoned child.The reader picks up on the fact that the protagonist lives a life of emotional isolation by choice.

The four friends originally plan to remain on the island home for two days, though that turns to a week. Through the protagonist's eyes the reader observes the shifting, ugly, complex relationship between David and Anna, the married couple. We are there for David's taunting sexism, his coolheaded cruelty to Anna -- I thought throughout the book that he was a quietly sinister character, like a public charmer who is abusive behind closed doors. Anna in return reacts to his behavior with promiscuity; she isn't an entirely sympathetic character because she is catty to the protagonist, and, given the chance, turns on her when David opts to do so.The relationships between the four people on the island are the most important part of this book.

As the book progresses, the protagonist's way of thinking about her life begins shifting steadily. She was always detached emotionally, but with each page she also seems less lucid, so the reader is transmitted her perspective, where mystical events combine with reality. The reader then has to sift through and decide: what is real and what is the protagonist's imagination?

There was a fixation in Surfacing on Americans representing all things exploitative, boorish and manipulative. In one section, the narrator mistakes two annoying fishermen for Americans, only to find that the fishermen had mistaken their party for Americans as well -- they were all, in fact, Canadian. I've noticed that Atwood does this a lot: she flips the easy analysis of her work and intentions on its head and opens up new avenues for critical analysis... I LOVE IT.

Overall, I liked this book. I think it was a very good decision to read the whole Atwood oeuvre book by book because a patchwork of the themes is emerging.

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