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When you see a book which has been described as one of the most important written in the twentieth century by the New York Times then of course you want to pick it up to see why they have described it so. Unfortunately, Surfacing is a book where I kept wondering when the exquisite storytelling or important life lesson was going to appear in this rather gloomy and dated little book.
An un-named woman returns to the remote island where she spent much of her childhood after learning that her widowed father has gone missing. She takes her boyfriend Joe and friends Anna and David along too, it is unclear if they want to go for a holiday or to support their friend. They spend the time in the small wooden hut which belongs to the narrators father and live a back to basics existence by picking vegetables from the garden, cooking by the fire, hiking and fishing and swimming in the lake. Of course most women whose father had gone missing would be worried sick and doing everything they could to piece together his whereabouts but this is only a tiny part of the story.
This week long adventure sparks off a series of memories for our protagonist and she seeks to make sense of her past. It also causes tensions in the group of friends with the two couples experiencing problems in their relationships away from the distractions of everyday life.
Surfacing is a very odd book indeed, we know our narrator has divorced and abandoned her child in order to work as an artist yet this story is not explored fully. The book looks at the bonds which tie us to each other whether that is parent and child, lovers or friends. Our narrator seems curiously detached from the world and the people surrounding her and this detachment works well to explore both her and others motivations.
I have got a feeling that Surfacing was trying to make a comment about the relationship between the sexes and gender inequalities and here it shows that some sexist attitudes towards women existed in 1972 when the book was written so no surprises there then! It does attempt to look at marriage and motherhood and what those institutions means to a woman. Perhaps I would have appreciated the book better if I had been alive when it was written and the somewhat hedonistic and sexually liberated life the friends shared seemed slightly risky and shocking. I have a huge interest in feminism and feminist politics so I should be exactly the type of reader who appreciated this book and understood what it had to say.
Surfacing is a book which left me perplexed and confused, surely a book which was so important 40 years ago should still carry meaning today but it left me cold. Despite what the critics say about this book I do not feel like it deserves to be named as a modern classic but instead a rather dated and irrelevant novel.
A divorced woman returns to the island of her birth with her new boyfriend, Joe, and two friends, Anna and David. David wants to do some filming, but the main reason for her return is to search for her father, who has gone missing. This, and the familiar territory, evoke many memories in her, and she is forced to sit down and consider who she really is. Will she 'find' herself? Will she find her father? And will things ever return to normal again?
Margaret Attwood is, without a doubt, a brilliant writer and I have enjoyed several of her books, most notably Blind Assassin, The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace. She has written a couple of duds though - I remember Bodily Harm as being particularly pointless. As Surfacing is one of her earlier pieces of work, I wasn't really sure what to expect, but obviously hoped it would be up there with my favourites. I can honestly say though, that although it has its advantages, it is one of the strangest and possibly pointless books I have read in a long time.
Everything starts off well. As soon as I discovered that the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the book, and her friends were going to stay on a remote island, my interest was piqued. I love stories set on islands, there is something comforting about them. And initially, this one reminded me very much of Coastliners, by Joanne Harris, which also involved a girl returning to her home island, forced to think about who she really is. I loved the descriptions of the island - they are very crisp and clear and I really felt as though I could see what was being described. I also liked the suggestion of a mystery - the woman's missing father - and hoped that this would become an integral part of the story.
None of the characters are particularly likeable, although they are well described, and I found it very hard to identify with them. The narrator is a really cold fish, so much so that she left her husband and child behind without so much of a backward glance. She freely admits that she is incapable of love - even her new man is just someone she lives with rather than loves. There is a suggestion though that we are going to find out what makes her tick, some childhood trauma that affected her mental health, but unless I'm missing something, nothing is really resolved.
Joe, the boyfriend, is a very shadowy creature, who only begins to get vaguely interesting near the end. His partner's coldness towards him did inspire some sympathy though. As for David and Anna, they are two of the most pointless characters I have come across in literature for a long time. David is into free love, taking every opportunity to be in the limelight and to put Anna, his wife, down. Anna is constantly needing reassurance from David that she is still attractive, refusing to show her face before it is plastered in make-up, and wanting the approval of other men. So uninspiring did I find them that I didn't really care what happened to them. Never a good sign.
The first half of the book is fairly mundane, involving the four of them moving round the island looking for the narrator's father, doing some fishing, weeding and chopping. Then things begin to get more interesting - suddenly the narrator seems to find a clue to her father's whereabouts in his papers, and it looks as though questions are finally going to be answered. Then it all turns very strange and I, for one, really began to lose the plot. The strange happenings may all be symbolic, but if so, they went right over the top of my head. More importantly, I nearly lost the will to live and by the end of the book, really didn't care what happened to any of them.
The book is, undoubtedly, well-written. There was the odd time when I felt as thought Attwood's writing was unnecessarily pretentious, but because most of the time it was not, I didn't mind too much. The narrator's fragile state of mind does mean that the story jumps around a lot, back to her childhood, to her marriage, to the birth of her baby, which makes the story a little difficult to follow at times - I often found myself having to go back and re-read a paragraph to work out if she is talking about the past or the present, which was slightly annoying.
All in all, I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. It is not long, which is a blessing, but even so it took me quite some time to read, because after the first couple of chapters, I lost interest in the proceedings. It does speed up towards the end, but because it was all so strange, I just didn't enjoy it very much. If you like fantasy, you may possibly find it more interesting than I, but if you just want a good read, I can't recommend this book. No doubt someone will now tell me what it was all about and that I need to read it again - but personally I think if a book doesn't connect at the first reading, then it isn't worth the bother. Not recommended.
The book is available from play.com for £5.99. Published by Little Brown Book Group, it has 120 pages. ISBN: 9780860680642
To what extent do we lie ourselves and invent different stories about the things in our lives to hide the truth from ourselves? Sometimes the truth is unbearable, and we have to invent a story for ourselves simply to be able to go on living, simply - to be able to survive. But, there is a price to it, we lose our wholeness, because - deep inside us, there is a part of us that cannot be fooled, and that is our unconscious. The truth is bound to be set free, even in our dreams. We can fool our consciuos part, but, our unconscious - never. Margaret Atwood`s book is about the gradual revelation of the secret cause of the damage, and the heroine`s struggling to recover her sanity. There are two worlds juxtaposed in the novel - one that is aware of it being sick and trying to recover(the nameless heroine), and the other - existing "on the surface" (David and Anna) - the world of superficiality, in which the only transformation that can be made is by using make-up, that is, there is no real transformation. In the first world - there is an ultimate transformation, where the person surfaces from the bog of lies and deceptions into the world of attempting to find one`s true identity and finding out ultimate truths about oneself. The knowledge that was too painful for her comes to the surface. She has to regress in order to regain her sanity, and her wholeness. I strongly recommend this book, because it is about something we tend to disregard in our lives. Sometimes we have to dive to find our truths, and only then - can we truly surface.
SUNDAY TIMES: 'Utterly absorbing and satisfying'. NEW YORK TIMES: 'One of the most important novels of the twentieth century...utterly remarkable'.