Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2019

Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood (Novellas in November, Margaret Atwood Reading Month)

October and November are months full of ‘months’!

There’s Novellas in November which has had a variety of hosts but lives on with #NovNov at ReadingInBed, Non-Fiction November hosted by Julz, Brona’s AusReading Month, Red October Russian Reads at Vishy’s, German Lit month at Caroline and Lizzy’s and #MARM ( a most hilarious hashtag for an uber-feminist) Margaret Atwood Reading Month at Consumed by Ink.  So we need to multi-task, eh?

The definition of novella is a bit fuzzy.  Wikipedia says it’s a text of written, fictional, narrative prose normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words.  However, WP also says that it can be longer…

…for the German writer, a novella is a fictional narrative of indeterminate length—a few pages to hundreds—restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point (Wendepunkt), provoking a logical but surprising end.  (Underlining mine).

So, a novella is a short novel, with some characteristics of a novel that a short story (usually) doesn’t have i.e. character development, though this site places limitations on subplots, conflicts and PoVs and even (hmpf!) says a novella doesn’t have chapters.

Since I am not ever going to start counting how many words there are in the books I read, and life is too short to have hard-and-fast rules about anything to do with books, on this blog I classify 100 pages as a short story, and 100-200 pages as a novella or a short novel.  (Though #Caveat it depends a bit on the size of the font and the page.  Giramondo Shorts are nearly always novellas, but Ali Smith’s Autumn had very large print on 259 large pages and I reckon it’s a novella).

Which means I can notch up Margaret Atwood’s second work of fiction Surfacing at 186 pages as a novella, and folks can argue about that if they like!

(And as a bonus I can tick off another of the 1001 books I have to read before I die).

All right then, what about the book?

Surfacing , first published in 1972, gets a gig in 1001 Books You Must Etc because it is a novel(la) of belonging and displacement told with remarkable precision and economy…

… preoccupied by the question of boundaries: of language, of national identity, of ‘home’, of gender, and of the body.  The novel[la] shows that it is not only refugees or armies who cross borders but the whole gigantic machinery of capital and the mass media.  (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 Edition, p. 630)

Nonetheless, Surfacing reads like an intensely personal story.  The unnamed narrator has come to a remote part of Quebec to find her father who has mysteriously disappeared.  She hasn’t had a great relationship with her parents, and she’s been living an urban life while her father, now a widower, has pursued his obsessions in the cabin where she spent much of her childhood, living off the land.  But as the flashbacks reveal, #Understatement her marriage and motherhood (undertaken for all the wrong reasons and emblematic of women’s lack of choices in that era) didn’t work out, and her new relationship with Joe is in trouble too.  He wants what she doesn’t want to be.

Along with naked hostility to all things American, this novel is overtly hostile to men.  The narrator’s companions David and Anna appear to be happy, but the isolation of this trip, which was meant to be brief, is a catalyst for a marriage in trouble too.  David is a bully and a womaniser and his intimidation of Anna is repulsive.  Anna OTOH isn’t willing to venture away from what he expects of her at all.  (She even gets up early to do her face because he doesn’t like to see her without makeup).  Joe is childish and sulky when he doesn’t get his own way, and seems to have no grasp of the anxiety that pervades the narrator’s mindset.  As for father, the narrator seeks in the cabin for any sign that he loved her, but not even the title deeds which would form her meagre inheritance can be found.  There’s nobody to like in this story…

Yet she finds redemption for these parents, despite their imperfections:

I try to think for the first time what it was like to be them: our father, islanding his life, protecting both us and himself, in the midst of war and in a poor country, the effort it must have taken to sustain his illusions of reason and benevolent order, and perhaps he didn’t.  Our mother, collecting the seasons and the weather and her children’s faces, the meticulous records that allowed her to omit the other things, the pain and the isolation and whatever it was she was fighting against, something in a vanished history.  I can never know.  They are out of reach now, they belong to themselves, more than ever. (p.184)

What makes this novel[la] more then a story about dysfunctional relationships is that as it progresses the narrator regresses into paranoia.  At first the reader is merely confused about what’s happening, and then it becomes a case of trying to work out what’s real and what’s not.  Increasingly she behaves in ways that appear irrational, but can also be interpreted as the behaviour of an individual desperate to follow her own path.  She abandons what is expected of her and becomes at one with nature, burning her past and surfacing from earth. fire, wind and water to take back her selfhood.

This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that, I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone. A lie which was always more disastrous than the truth would have been. The word games, the winning and losing games are finished; at the moment there are no others but they will have to be invented, withdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death.

I drop the blanket on the floor, and go into my dismantled room.  My spare clothes are here, knife slashed in them but I can still wear them.  I dress, clumsily, unfamiliar with buttons; I re-enter my own time. (p.185)

Surfacing isn’t my favourite Atwood novel, that’s Cat’s Eye (1988) though I’m also very fond of The Penelopiad (2005).

Thanks Naomi for hosting #MARM, and Laura for hosting #NovNov.

Author: Margaret Atwood
Title: Surfacing
Publisher: Virago, 1979, reprinted 2004, 186 pages
First published 1972
ISBN: 9780860680642
Source: Port Phillip Library Service

Available from Fishpond:Surfacing





  1. I want to re-read both this *and* Cat’s Eye – will November be long enough??????


    • Surfacing, yes, it’s short and I read it about five hours, but Cats-Eye, you may need to take a day off work!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Impressive multi-tasking! November is exciting for book bloggers, isn’t it?!
    Thanks so much for taking part, Lisa. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It sure is a busy reading month! Choosing slim volumes can sometimes allow for more participation all the way ’round. I think that last year Bookish Beck counted this one for a novella too. It’s not my favourite either, but I do recall enjoying my reread of it far more than I expected to. I had missed quite a bit the first time. Which says more about me as a younger reader than about the book I expect! (Glad you appreciate the humour in the #MARM hashtag. I’m hoping MA would see it ironically as well!)


    • Of course MA would get the humour, every image I’ve ever seen of her she has that wry smile I love so much.
      I think it does merit a re-read, but I really ought to read books 2 & 3 of MaddAddam first: I’ve read Oryx and Crake, and I have Bk 3 on the TBR, but I haven’t got a copy of Bk 2 yet, I’m not sure how I let that happen…


  4. This has sat in my TBR pile for longer than I care to remember – will read it one day

    Liked by 1 person

  5. People do find redemption, or at least excuses, for old fashioned men. “It was the way they were brought up”. I was brought up that way and it took a long time, 40-50 years to break out of it.


    • Bill, I hear you, and if you’re taking that on for yourself, I say well done.
      But I also think, that all of us who are parents know that we fail our children in multiple ways, and part of being a mature adult, I think, is to recognise that our parents are people too, and that makes them eligible for redemption. I know some parents do unforgiveable things to their children, but for most of us, our parents’ flaws (as Atwood is saying in the text) are a product of their own experiences and their own era. Much/most of what they did was well-intentioned if not always well-executed.
      This blog is not where I reveal my own personal history but I left home at sixteen for very good reasons and never regretted it. And yet I reconciled with both my parents a long time ago, and made a deliberate choice to have a rewarding relationship (especially with my father) long before they died.
      Being judgemental, IMO, is just too hard…because then there’s no redemption for your own mistakes. (And I have made plenty!)


      • Thank you for that thoughtful answer. Like Helen Garner (who has just published those diaries she hasn’t burnt) I seem unable to write without writing about myself. And that is also how I read – how does this apply to me?


        • I think we are meant to read like that! A writer pours her heart and soul into a work of art not just so that we can know what she thinks, but also to prompt us to think as well.
          To me, this is the difference between genre fiction and LitFic. If you read some police procedural featuring the same old melancholy detective each time, the only thing to think about is whodunit. It can’t change your life and way of thinking, and it’s not expected to, it’s entertainment. That is what people like about it.
          But if you read Surfacing, you have to wrestle with the problem of years of patriarchy: how to find the balance between thinking about yourself and how it’s preventing you from being yourself, and that means analysing your life and relationships; and conversely thinking about others and trying to make them happy because that’s a normal human thing to do, but you want to do it without damaging yourself. As 1001 Books says, this book asks: where’s the border between selfish narcissism and concern for others, when you need to think about yourself to work out what’s wrong, and being too concerned for others lets them oppress you all over again.
          Any woman who reads Surfacing is asked to think, gasp! am I being like Anna and letting my man lord it over me and demanding insulting obedience, or am I being like the narrator and denying myself any kind of life by expecting the impossible in my relationships. Where does the balance lie for me? A man who reads it will be thinking, gasp! do I treat my woman like that? How could I behave differently so that the narrator would feel I am treating her with respect as well as love?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Totally agree with this distinction between Literary Fiction and general fiction/ entertainment.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Many years since I read this, I hadn’t remembered anything about it. You make me want to read it again.


    • I want to read The Edible Woman too…


  7. […] that’s it! So many people are sharing their novellas plans, like Bookish Beck and ANZ LitLovers. Check out #NovNov and #NovellasinNovember on Twitter and Instagram as […]


  8. That German definition of a novella is interesting! I read Surfacing many years ago and don’t remember a lot about it. I didn’t like it much. I enjoyed your review though, and I will try some more early Atwood someday. I also love Cats Eye, and Oryx and Crake.


    • It is definitely weird and strange towards the end, and there’s no characters you can like much, so I suspect I also might not have liked it much when I was younger. My tolerance for these features in books has changed a lot since then.
      I also love Alias Grace:)


  9. I haven’t read Surfacing yet, but it sounds like I should. However, I’ve read your review because it could be ages and I’ll have forgotten by then!

    I love your statement that “Much/most of what they did was well-intentioned if not always well-executed.” That says it perfectly for most of us.

    BTW My favourite Atwoods are The Handmaid’s tale, The blind assassin and then Alias Grace. I know a lot of people loved Cat’s eye but for some reason, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t grab me. The blind assassin absolutely wowed me. I remember being on quite a high when I finished it. I thought it was well-intentioned and well-executed! Haha! That just came to me.


    • In a way, The Blind Assassin was my ‘first’ Atwood. I had read The Handmaid’s Tale, but so long ago, I hadn’t even journalled it, and though I remembered the story and its name, I’d forgotten the author’s name altogether. (Remember when we had no internet to help our faulty memories? When we would have had to wade through the title cards at the library to find the author’s name?)
      So by the time The Blind Assassin won the Booker, Atwood felt like a new author to me, and yes, I was rapt too. I started buying her books whenever I saw them in the OpShop or my long-gone favourite second-hand bookshop, Diversity Books. (They still trade online, but it’s not the same).
      I was rather tempted to tell the library that I’d lost Surfacing so that I could add it to my collection, but my conscience got the better of me…


      • I should think so Lisa!! Haha.

        And yes, the Internet is great for finding forgotten things. How lucky we are I think. However, The handmaid’s tale made such an impression on me – but admittedly it was my second of hers as I had read Bodily harm before that – that she was well on my radar after that. Like you, though, I read these before I was formally recording my books. I did keep ad hoc diaries back in the 1980s so I need one day to go through them (if I can bear it!) and fish out what records I do have.


  10. […] Lisa @ ANZ LitLovers LitBlog – Surfacing by Margaret Atwood […]


  11. […] soul’s present condition: Surfacing, by Margaret […]


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