A Look at Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing

When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was eighteen, a newly declared feminist, and spending the summer after my first year of college reading only books written by women. I went in not knowing much of anything about the book, except that it came highly recommended by my most simpatico high school friend. I came away from it changed. I had never read anything quite like it; I was shocked to find out that it had been published in 1985, a year before I was born. It seemed – and still seems today – so relevant.

That book opened a gateway to Atwood’s other work, though I didn’t step through it in earnest until after I had graduated college (and had more free time on my hands). Her poetry devastated me. Her novels enraptured me. Her essays edified me. Her short stories…well, her short stories were fine. And by fine, I mean that they are still quite good, just not quite as good as her other writing. Atwood works best, in my opinion, when she either limits herself to the sparseness of poetry or the expansiveness of novels.

One of my favorite novels of hers is an earlier one that is little known. It’s called Surfacing, and it’s incredibly strange. The main character goes back to the town where she grew up, because her father has gone missing and is presumed dead. She brings with her the man with whom she lives, her closest woman friend, and that friend’s husband. They are all from the city and think their sojourn to the country is incredibly quaint, while the narrator starts to feel anxious on their drive in.

It only gets worse once they arrive at the cabin. They search the woods; the narrator is convinced her father is still alive somewhere. She sinks down into madness and the reader sinks down with her. She becomes feral. She starts believing in gods that are somewhere between people and animals and which live in the woods, at the bottoms of lakes.

As a story, it seems situated somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson (especially The Haunting of Hill House, which in my opinion is far scarier than anything Lovecraft wrote, anyway). It’s not marketed as horror, of course, only “literature” – but Atwood’s entire oeuvre is a case study in the blurry line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction”. Surfacing may not be horror, exactly, but it does have that sense one often gets in horror of dread building and building. As the text goes on, the reader discovers that the narrator cannot exactly be trusted. It’s not that she’s not telling what she believes is the truth (she is), but rather that someone experiencing a breakdown – of any kind – cannot be trusted.

Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe she is telling the truth and the truth is simply unbelievable.

It doesn’t matter, though, and that’s part of the magic. You can (and should) read it for yourself, make up your own mind. Atwood is a master – and, I’m convinced, at least a little prescient. If, somehow, you have escaped reading any of her work, The Handmaid’s Tale is a great place to start. If you’re looking for more, maybe try Booker Award-winning The Blind Assassin or Oryx & Crake, the first book in her MaddAddam sci-fi trilogy. Whatever you’re interested in, there’s probably a Margaret Atwood novel, or short story, or poem, about it. Make sure not to miss it.