November is both Margaret Atwood Reading Month (BIP) and AusReading Month (Brona). But, a week or so ago, it suddenly popped into my head that the month was already under way. So I started reading the book I had set aside for Brona, and, audiobooks being so to speak like signs on a freeway flashing past, I borrowed and listened to Surfacing, which I now must review before it is lost behind the barely glimpsed images of all the subsequent signs, or in this case, a guy-SF space opera.
What is really embarrassing is that all this went on while I was writing the actual date on work stuff every day; and more importantly, I completely overlooked a batch of birthdays coming up at the end of October which required book buying and interstate postage and will now therefore be late.
Yes, I know, I could write today (13 Oct) and hold off till November but I will be desperate for a something to post well before then.
Margaret Atwood (1939- ) is of course Canadian. BIP describes her as the first Canadian author to gain international recognition, as the writer who made Canada a valid subject for writing. I am completely ignorant when it comes to Canadian writing, so that is an argument into which I will not venture any further than to say Canada – or frozen North America anyway – was the setting for a number of boys own type books I owned and read in the 1950s.
Last year for MARM I read Cat’s Eye (1988), deliberately not looking up any explanatory material, including Atwood’s year of birth, until after I had written it up. This year I know a little more, so I will attempt to provide some context.
Atwood’s father was a botanist and the family – MA has an older brother and younger sister – appears to have lived and travelled a great deal in Canada’s forests. Her first vocation was as a poet, though interestingly in both Cat’s Eye and Surfacing her protagonist is a painter or illustrator.
She describes her first novel The Edible Woman (1969) as a work of protofeminism, ie. as predating Women’s Lib. As is frequently the case with Literary Fiction, her early works – judging by the summaries – are all explorations of her own coming of age, early adulthood and relationships, the theme to which she returns, aged nearly 50, in Cat’s Eye. And although I have read her better known fiction, A Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace etc., I am glad I have come to Cat’s Eye and now Surfacing (1972) for a closer look at her.
Surfacing begins with a road trip. The female protagonist, unnamed; the guy she lives with, Joe; her current bestie, Anna; and Anna’s husband David, are all in their late twenties, in David’s old car and as best I can make out, in Quebec, or maybe further west, in Ontario, north of the Great Lakes. Anyway, they’re in Canada, making for a lakeside village in the pine forests where ‘she’ is known, where she grew up on an otherwise uninhabited island out in the lake, where her father is now missing presumed dead.
A local boatman takes them out to the island. They occupy her childhood home, a log cabin without power or running water, in a damp, cold, densely treed wilderness. It might be summer, Anna sunbathes, but for an Australian this is winter, and the winters she remembers, with snow up to the eaves, are just unimaginable.
I use Google Books to get a quote. It’s describing Joe in the car –
From the side he’s like the buffalo on the u.s. nickel, shaggy and blunt-snouted, with small clenched eyes and the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction. That’s how he thinks of himself too: deposed, unjustly. Secretly he would like them to set up a kind of park for him, like a bird sanctuary. Beautiful Joe.
He feels me watching him and lets go of my hand.
David has a grant to make an arty film. Joe, an artist in clay, is his cameraman. They have a hired camera and a limited amount of film. She will show them around. Anna is along for the ride.
On the island, initially for the weekend, then for a week, she is the only one at home – camping, kayaking, fishing – and must take the lead. Apart from day to day living, very little happens. She is afraid that her father will reappear, driven mad by loneliness, her mother long since dead, her brother a geologist in the Outback, presumably Australia, and she too long absent.
There is a Lord of the Flies vibe. Gradually the little party falls apart. Her back story includes marriage and a child, both seemingly abandoned. Joe is convenient but unimportant. He, feeling her slipping away, wants more, and sulks when rebuffed. For a while She and Anna exchange confidences, interestingly, they have both tried the pill and stopped taking it. David asserts his new-age guyness, forcing Anna to pose naked, and then when she gravitates towards Joe, puts the word on ‘her’. She evades him, but he follows her into the bush, “You know you wanted me to.”
Throughout, there are Canadians chopping down trees, damming the lake to make moving the logs easier, and Americans in fast, loud boats who think Canada is their private hunting reserve. “David says ‘Bloody fascist pig Yanks,’ as though he’s commenting on the weather.”
Slowly her own mental condition deteriorates. The week comes to an end, they leave, she stays. For a day she’s naked in the snow. It’s not clear why the story ends as it does.
Surfacing is excellently written. Atwood was clearly a talented literary writer right from the beginning. Here she is exploring not so much feminism as women’s new relation to men; men’s uncertainty about how much of their old roles they are going to have to give up in the brand-new world of the Sixties.
Margaret Atwood, Surfacing, first pub. 1972. Audiobook read by Kim Handysides, published in Australia by Bolinda. 7 hours.