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Surfacing – Margaret Atwood



Posted September 1, 2016 by

Surfacing – Margaret Atwood – 1972


Reviewed by: Dave         Date: 25 January 2002

atwood-surfacing-canSurfacing? Sinking? Or sunk?

On the exterior many lives are impetuously lived, in constant motion, constant flux, demanding change… while on the inside, important wheels have long since stopped turning. Crucial questions languish, not so much from being already answered as from never having been asked. Another type of person floats along fairly steady, and constant diversion is not really an issue… but on the inside, they are a whirligig. Always asking and re-asking, backpedalling, and here in the unseen realm the action is taking place, like a duck’s feet underwater.

The nameless protagonist in Atwood’s Surfacing is of this latter variety, contemplative and introspective. Together with three friends of the former type of personality (a married couple and her boyfriend Joe), these four drive off into the remote Quebec wilderness for a few days of R & R. This whirligig character however, has a far greater purpose in mind. She is returning here to her childhood home in search of her father who has mysteriously vanished without a trace. While these other three suntan, fish, and bicker, she is on a quest that calls forth a recollection of her entire upbringing and childhood. We sense that if she finds her father at all, it will be in a way that is as surprising to the reader as it will be to herself.

She’s a great character. If it wasn’t for her the others would seemingly starve to death, seated at the table and surrounded by victuals but unaware of how to prepare lunch. She’s the organizer, the fish-filleter, the decision-maker… hourly explaining to her friends what will happen next. She is the individual who surfaces, thinks for herself, and finds an identity within. In stark contrast are her friends who seem to only find sustenance in the pieces they can bite off of each other and ingest.

As in so much of Atwood’s work, these men are soon to reveal their inherent nasty dogness. On two occasions Whirligig avoids being (essentially) raped by each of them only by reminding them that it is “the right time” for her to get pregnant. But she is not a heroine without her own foibles. She realizes her own problems, the greatest of which may be her her inability to return the “love” that has been offered her throughout her life. Her detached coldness. But the importance in becoming whole (self-actualized?) may lie right there in this word “realizing”, which, in the case of this novel MAY be synonymous with the word “surfacing”. Throughout the book a central question seems to repeat itself… what does it mean to love? What if I don’t “feel” love when someone says “I love you”? What does it mean to love one’s past, one’s history? To love your parents, your self… to love your lovers. And what does it mean to withdraw, to UTTERLY withdraw? These are the kind of meaty questions that surface in this book, brilliantly written and permeated with dark symbolism and a misty/ethereal 70’s New-Ageyness to it. In Atwoodland, anything and everything can be a talisman.

“It’s true, I am by myself; this is what I wanted, to stay here alone. From any rational point of view I am absurd; but there are are no longer any rational points of view.”

Is Whirligig sane or insane on the last page? Surfacing or submerged? The author leaves the verdict in the hands of the reader. I enjoyed reading it, and haven’t yet set the gavel down.

ReadLit Team


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