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Review: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Book Summary

Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just below the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices. Surfacing is a work permeated with an aura of suspense. complex with layered meanings, and written in brilliant, diamond-sharp prose. Here is a rich mine of ideas from an extraordinary writer about contemporary life and nature, families and marriage, and about women fragmented...and becoming whole. 


As a veteran Margaret Atwood fan, I entered into this novel, one of her earliest writings, with a multitude of extremely high expectations. There must be incredibly well-written portrayals of dysfunctional relationships, both familial and romantic. There must be disturbing and dark elements, fragmented identities, complex female characters, and at least one completely shocking revelation by the last chapter. I expected to close the last page, deeply haunted by some newly acquired knowledge of my own emotional landscape. Four years when I first discovered Atwood through her famous dystopian work, A Handmaid's Tale, her words challenged me and changed me. Every Atwood piece since then has held to the same standards. Surfacing did not disappoint. 

The cover of the novel says it all- the lower half of a woman breaks through the surface of what appears to be a lake, but as you look closer at the bottom, it begins to look like the sky. Atwood confronts the reader with a fragmented protagonist, recognizable and surprising, ostensibly sensible and ultimately surreal.Upon learning of her estranged father's disappearance, she returns to her old home with her new boyfriend and their married friends. Slowly remembering the past and piecing together the present, the narrator weaves a compelling tale of finding and losing identity and of surviving the continual process and performance of living in the world today.

Atwood takes her readers deep into the dark corners of the human psyche, fearlessly exploring and illuminating realities most author shrink from. She effortlessly navigates convoluted commentaries on the modern world, pointing out truths we never knew we already knew. Although penned over four decades ago, Atwood's words still ring clear and true to the world today. The violence smoldering underneath the surface of her isolated Canadian lakes resonate with concrete cities and suburban backyards alike. And perhaps most importantly, it resonates in the subconsciousness of anyone who's ever felt fragmented, scattered or broken and anyone who has ever found a way to heal again.  

Reviewed by Miranda Wojciechowski

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 3/28/1998
Pages: 199

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