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.

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