Monday, January 16, 2017

the last book I read

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.

Our unnamed protagonist (again!) is a young woman working as an illustrator in the city who returns to her childhood home in the wilderness of northern Quebec upon hearing of the disappearance of her father. Unsatisfied with what she's heard from the authorities, she decides to search for him herself, bringing her boyfriend Joe and their friends David and Anna along for the ride, or more accurately to provide the ride, since it's David's car they're travelling in.

The old family home is a pretty spartan affair on an island in a lake, accessible only by boat. The foursome settle in, and it's all pretty good Five On Kirrin Island fun in the early stages, eating sardines out of a can sitting on a jetty, foraging for mushrooms in the woods, that sort of thing. But soon some tensions start to creep in: the narrator's relationship with Joe, while well-established enough for them to have moved in together, seems a bit shaky, and while David and Anna are married their relationship is less straightforward than it seems as well, mainly owing to David being something of a shit. Plus there is the ever-present possibility of finding Dad swinging from a tree or half-devoured by beavers, which puts a slight damper on the party atmosphere.

Expeditions are organised, including a canoe trip to a different lake to go fishing, during the course of which the group encounters a group of American tourists and evidence of their indiscriminate wildlife-killing habits. Meanwhile, Joe and David amuse themselves shooting scenes for their experimental movie, using whatever is available: a fish being gutted, a putrefying heron, Anna (who they've browbeaten into stripping off her bikini) jumping naked off a jetty. Once this becomes tiresome they progress to some more serious games: Joe bones Anna, and David attempts to do the same to the narrator, although she isn't having any of it.

Eventually, after she's escaped the situation in a canoe to go off and do some exploring, the narrator has a disturbing experience while diving in the lake at the base of a cliff. What is the murky vision which looms up at her from the depths? Is it her father's bloated corpse? Or the reproachful ghost of the foetus she aborted some time back? Who knows?

However, not long after her return, a boat arrives from the nearest village to inform the group that her father's body has been found in the lake. The group gets ready to depart back to civilisation, but our narrator has something of a moment and flees, shedding her clothes in the process and hiding out in the forest until everyone else has gone. She then has some sort of quasi-supernatural/religious experience where the spirits of the island tell her which bits of the island she is permitted to venture onto. After a couple of days of running around dressed only in a blanket and foraging for roots she regains her equilibrium a bit, retrieves her clothes, and as the novel ends we leave her standing at the edge of the woods watching a rescue party pull alongside the jetty.

Surfacing was the second novel of Margaret Atwood's long literary career, published in 1972. Obviously not every novelist's output follows the same arc but this is quite a typical early novel in that it's a) quite short and b) clearly inspired by events from the novelist's own life, in this case Atwood's childhood where she really did live in a similarly remote place.

It's an odd book in some ways: seemingly very naturalistic and straightforward at the start, it gets stranger as it goes on, first as it becomes apparent that the ex-husband and child the narrator alludes to in the first part of the book are clearly fictitious and part of some elaborate defence mechanism she's built to assuage the guilt of an abortion, and secondly around the time of her (possible) encounter with her dead father when things get a bit more weird and hallucinatory, it's less clear what's real and what's not, and the reader has the odd sensation of the previously firmly-grasped plot slipping through his/her fingers. Things appear to snap back into place by the end, although a bit of ambiguity remains: will she step onto the rescue boat or flee back into the woods?

So what's it about? It's about 200 pages. No, but what's it about? Well, see the brief plot synopsis above. No, but, you know, what's it about? Clearly we're in the realms of feminist literature here: it's the early 1970s, North American women are in the process of becoming liberated and independent and not reliant on a man to define or support them. We're presumably meant to draw a contrast between the rugged canoe-wrangling practicality of the narrator and her ambivalent relationship with the monosyllabic Joe, and the more stereotypical relationship that Anna and David have, with him constantly belittling her and her desperate to ensure that he never sees her without make-up, even in a tent in the Canadian wilderness. Quite what the mystical fugue that the narrator enters into during her period alone on the island is meant to convey I'm not sure: an extreme reaction to grief at her father being confirmed dead? some kind of mystical she-witch sense of oneness with nature? I couldn't say. Some of the horrible shouty polluting humans versus nature stuff was slightly reminiscent of the excellent 1978 Australian film Long Weekend, which I recommend to you if you haven't seen it.

Atwood is of course most famous for her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which won numerous science fiction awards despite Atwood's amusingly sniffy disdain for the "science fiction" label. That and the later novel Cat's Eye are the only other Atwoods I've read - if you must have only one it would really have to be The Handmaid's Tale, but Surfacing is worth a look. It was made into a somewhat obscure film in 1981, which appears to be available in its entirety on YouTube.

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