Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

I’m not convinced that I understood this book. What I think happens is that a young woman returns to her childhood home with three friends and eventually is driven mad by recollections of her past. I’m pretty sure of that basic plot summary. What I’m not sure of is a) how much of the story is supposed to be real and how much she is imagining, and b) what I’m supposed to take from it.

I think it’s a feminist book, kind of, in that it shows, marginalised, unhappy female characters, but I don’t know if that is presented as being a result of societal oppression or just the individual characters’ situations. I think the marginal women are perhaps more victims of oppression, the two most significant female characters are harder, for me, to fit into that narrative. They are mistreated by the men in their lives, but they are also shown as mistreating the men. I think that it is a novel about alienation, and gender based discrimination is one of the forces by which the characters are alienated. HDR definitely brings in a few gender based issues and it’s a pro-women novel, in that the protagonist, who is never named, is alienated by traditional gender roles, and issues like contraception and makeup are brought up, but I didn’t read it as about feminism. I think perhaps because there are several different feminist issues raised, many of them quite briefly, I didn’t come away feeling that the novel was about feminism, more that feminism was a feature of the novel.

I think past of the reason I didn’t really understand it is that I know virtually nothing about Canadian history, so I was missing a lot of the political undercurrent. The novel is set in Quebec, and while I have very very briefly studied québécois politics in relation to linguistics, I’m pretty much totally ignorant of what the political situation in Quebec and Canada as a whole would have been when the book was written. I probably would have gotten more out of the book if I’d known more about that.

Because I was missing the political implications,  I read the novel as more of a reflection on memory, parental relationships and childhood, and particularly on trauma. This is where I think I misunderstood. I’ve tried to read around the novel a little, and th word that keeps coming up is alienation. The narrator’s madness supposedly stems from her sense of alienation, whereas I read it as coming from recollections of past trauma, which I didn’t feel was a Colette explanation.

All I can really conclude is that I don’t get it but I suspect that if you do, it’s s fantastic book. Which is a terrible review.


Bookselves: identifying with characters

Like every other young woman in the last 200 years, I firmly believe that I am Elizabeth Bennet. It’s weird how so many people identify so strongly with this one character. But we are all inclined to do this, we find ourselves in the fictional characters we love.

Jane Austen is the master at this. Her heroines are distinct, individual characters, and yet as a reader it’s hard not to see something of yourself in them. Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor or Marianne Dashwood are all, in a lot of ways, aspirational, they’re pretty and clever and talented, so maybe it’s just that we all want to be like that, but I think it’s their flaws which make comparisons so easy to draw. I can see myself in Lizzy’s judgement of Darcy, in Emma’s belief that she knows best, in the way Elinor gets in her own way.

It’s not unusual, but the first character I can remember feeling this way about is Hermione Granger. I’m pretty sure there were others before then, but Hermione is the one who’s stuck with me. She was clever and socially inept and loved books, and a bit of a know-it-all, which I was then and still am now, although, like Hermione, my social ineptitude isn’t as bad as it once was.

Most recently, it has been Mhairi MacFarlane’s heroines, who are struggling to figure it out, much like me. I think those books came into my life at the right time for me to identify with the characters, because I’m not actually all that much like any of them, but I do identify with their experiences.

I do this with characters less and less as I grow up. These days, I want to learn something about the world from books a lot of the time, and it’s hard to do that through the lens of someone just like me. Where I do “identify” with a character, like with the Mhairi MacFarlane characters I talked about, it’s not that the characters and I share traits, it’s just something about them kind of makes sense to me in an instinctive way. Most of the the time though, I’m more interested in seeing outside myself.

Although that’s not to say that I don’t reread Pride and Prejudice every year. Some things never change.

Finding the time to read

In my head, I read a lot. But I’m not sure that’s the case any more. For a while, I was commuting by train, which meant at least forty minutes of reading time every single day, which I loved, but it has proven far more economical to drive, which I dislike. There are a few reasons I don’t like driving, but the fact that I get less opportunity to read is pretty high up the list. I’ve been listening to audiobooks, but I struggle with audiobooks for fiction.

Now that I’m working full time, my evenings and weekends are precious time to socialise and rest, and it’s become more difficult to fit reading into that. When I get in from work, I tend to crash out pretty quickly, so if I’m not reading something that I find super compelling, I don’t find myself reaching for my book.

All of this means that I feel like I’m not reading enough, which is a constant insecurity with me.
So, how am I going to combat this?

Firstly, I’m allowing myself to give up in books that I’m not reaching for. I recently started Caroline Criado-Perez’s Do It Like A Woman, and just found that I was forcing myself to pick it up. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad book, just that it’s not for me at this particular moment in time.

I’m also focussing more on fiction in my reading, because I’m more likely to keep going back for a plot than I am for information. There’s lots of non-fiction that I love, it’s just not massively my preference. To this end, I’ve picked up Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, both because the blurb sounds interesting and because I haven’t read much Atwood, even though I’m obsessed with The Handmaid’s Tale. I also chose it partially because it’s not too long, if I’m being entirely honest.

I also want to read more by authors I already love, hence the Atwood. I’m a bit of a butterfly with books, I’ll read anything that catches my interest. The downside of this is that I can’t think of many authors who I have systematically read everything they’ve written. Jane Austen might be the only one. So I’m looking back over the books I’ve loved in the last few years and going back to those authors.

The final thing that I’m hoping will encourage me to read more is reading more on recommendations from people I actually know, because I’m hoping that the desire to discuss the books I read with my family, friends and colleagues will motivate me to read them faster. Currently sitting on my shelf waiting to be read is my boyfriend’s favourite book, and given he’s currently reading my own favourite, I should really get on that.

Relatedly, I’m going to try to stop thinking of audiobooks as not proper reading. I sort of feel weird saying I’ve read Sara Pascoe’s Animal, because I only listened to it, but really, all the words are the same!