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Surfacing‘ is set in the Canadian wilderness of Northern Quebec and is the story of a young woman travelling back to her family home to inverstigate her fathers mysterious disappearance. As the nameless narrator and her three friends arrive on the desolate island, she begins to feel the power of nature that once suffocated her childhood. As the woman begins to look for her father with increasing concern, she realises that the island is exerting it’s own unique hold on her. Memories from her repressed past flood out from ancient objects abandoned to time, and she realises that she is slowly going crazy.


“To become like a little child again, a barbarian, a vandal; it was in us too, it was innate.”

Water themes run deep in this novel. But there are others like returning to the past, hunting for the lost thread of an abandoned childhood that also take centre-stage. Water takes the shape of whatever you put it in, and in exactly the same way our nameless protagonist slowly changes shape to her environment, heeding the call of the wild, vicious habitat around her. The events take place over two weeks, yet in that time Atwood successfully manages to convey the subtle shifts in her narrator. Towards the end, the narrators’ thoughts are reduced to a basic, instinctive survival pattern. Language is it cut down to its bare elements. At one point there is no need for punctuation, which reflects the need/ desire of the narrator to cut out all past pollution, to clean herself of all unwanted clutter. This reflection of waters that have run still for many years gets more and more disturbing. The crucial point is her broken relationship with her parents, and the alienation that comes full circle with her arrival on the island. Nature is at the forefront in this novel, and it is those unspoken rules that guide the narrator mercilessly towards an ambiguous end.
As I read this novel I felt helplessly exposed to the elements. Atwood’s prose is so deep and rich, but at the same time deprives the reader of sympathy. At one point her writing became so wild, I became concerned for the main character, who becomes unhinged as she finds it hard to grieve for her parents, especially her lost father.
This is one of Atwood’s earlier novels written in and around the time of ‘The Edible Woman‘ and it is here that I can begin to see the Atwood that I know and love so much. Here I can sense a glimmer of the genius (or rather ‘genesis’) or ‘Oryx and Crake‘, as she really takes the time to look at nature, evolution and even ‘devolution’ within species. Her crystal-clear vision and diamond-sharp prose cuts dangerously close to the wilderness where the plot takes places, and also the hidden wilderness within. As a woman, I could relate to the yearning of getting back to basics, of the desire to slough off the dead, useless memories that hold a person back. Towards the end, our narrator goes through a whole ritual where she slowly descends into a primitive lifeform, re-enacting the basic animal rites of nature. It is amazing to watch how the character sheds the manacles of social conditioning, and this is further heightened by Atwoods morphing prose. Vicious, bloody and predatory. This tale is more about the secret world of the forest and the lake, and is an experiment in the wordless tongue of nature.
I give it 4/5 stars.