Surfacing was first published in 1972, yet if you were to fold the corner of every page on which you found something fresh or remarkable, you might be left with a paper accordion. Margaret Atwood conveys complex meanings without ever resorting to a hackneyed phrase. To take one small example, she writes early in the novel of weeds that are ‘a month tall’. We read on for a few moments and then do a double take — the height of weeds isn’t measured in months! But the image is perfectly clear and instantly recognisable. Atwood is also particularly good at offering answers to questions we may never have thought to ask. Just why is it that French swear words come from religion and English swear words from the body? Because in each culture we swear with words derived from whatever we fear most, of course.
This is a deceptively short, seemingly straightforward novel, with one very important feature that sets it apart from most other novels: we never learn the name of the first person narrator. Since the story is often told in the present tense, the reader has the sense of slowing sliding into the novel and becoming the protagonist. You begin to feel that the ‘I’ of this novel is really you, that these are your thoughts and tangled memories.
You are a young woman who has returned to the remote island in northern Quebec, Canada, where you grew up. Your father has disappeared and you feel certain that you alone will be able to find him. Because you have no car, you take your married friends David and Anna, their car and your lover Joe, for a kind of holiday. The others know nothing about the island and it falls to you to protect them. This is a place that is seething with memories, a place that you had to leave to escape your parents’ innocence. Now that you have returned, you feel more keenly the critical differences between yourself and other people. There are mysterious rules and ways of being in this place and nobody else understands them.
‘I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where it has been prisoned for so long, its eyes and teeth phosphorescent; the two halves clasp, interlocking like fingers, it buds, it sends out fronds.’
This secluded island with its limited range of characters becomes the perfect setting for an exploration of much more far-reaching concerns. Surfacing burrows into the relationship between humans and nature. It draws up from the deep some troubling questions about the roles of women and men, and the ways in which we usually choose to arrange our relationships. You may be left in painful uncertainty about many things that seemed to have been settled for you by other people, such as the usefulness of marriage, the durability of love and the stability of national identity.