Book Review: Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing” by Tom Coles of Sail

Margaret Atwood - Surfacing

Over the next few months Nine Circles is very pleased to bring you a new series of book reviews written by musicians throughout the metal scene. As much as they love to write their own blast beats, discordant riffs and swirling maelstroms they also love to read and, for all of our benefit, discuss. The first post in this series features Tom Coles from the progressive sludge metal band Sail with his thoughts on Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s second published novel follows a displaced protagonist on an ill-fated trip to her hometown to find her missing father, with her obnoxious friends and useless boyfriend in tow. With a comparative narrative to Kerouac’s On The Road, the novel moves from awkward road trip to an uncomfortable discussion of nationalism. As the novel progresses, the unnamed protagonist is gradually disassociated from her companions and surroundings, leading to a breakdown at the novel’s conclusion.

The separation of the protagonist from her increasingly objectionable companions, her own father and her childhood home gives the narrative an undercurrent of disassociation which builds tension throughout. This anxiety is prevalent from the very start; more than most of her books, there’s a real sense of circumstances gradually crumbling, building to the breakdown. With this narrative comes some of Atwood’s most hateable characters – vacuous, ultra-nationalistic or blandly useless. Atwood’s dry humour is often character-driven; with the additional pressure of the enclosed space this drives the tension to unbearable peaks.

Having been a longtime Lovecraft fan I was reminded of similar breakdown narratives; Lovecraft was also big on divides between humanity and the wilderness, though he added gribbly space tentacles. Elsewhere there are parallels between the journey of the protagonist and The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood.

Atwood is probably best known for her chilling speculative sci-fi opus The Handmaid’s Tale (the TV adaptation of which is out this month). Earlier entries such as Surfacing and The Edible Woman aren’t generally as lauded. Reviewers and academic critics may not have been completely won over but I’ve always found this to be an effectively jarring entry to the canon; an underrated Atwood gem that deserves a serious critical re-think.

This is my favourite book. Atwood has an incredibly authentic, understated narrative voice and the journey of the miserable protagonist is told with a lightness of touch when it could so easily be ham-fisted. Fuck yeah Margaret Atwood.

Sail - Courtesy of Marianne Harris Photography
Sail – courtesy of Marianne Harris Photography

Many thanks to Tom for his time and thoughts on this book!


Surfacing is available at book stores and online worldwide. For more information on Margaret Atwood visit her official website.

Slumbersong is available now on Hibernacula Records. For more information on Sail visit their Facebook page.

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