The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood is a novel in the same world as her 2003 book, Oryx and Crake. Their two narratives are concurrent, so this newer book is not a sequel, but something of a retelling from another angle. I knew this going into reading The Year of the Flood so I didn’t mind not having yet read Oryx and Crake, although I would probably advise reading them in the order in which they were written. I can’t say for sure yet, but I would imagine it would add to the experience.
Ms. Atwood refers the genre of The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake and the Handmaid’s Tale as “speculative fiction.” I feel like this is an apt label. She takes aspects of our current society and spins them out, amplifying them and following them to their extremes. Reading the book in the Pacific Northwest this past week, where everyone composts and nary a pesticide has touched a fruit or vegetable in years, it wasn’t hard to imagine a future that contained a cult like The Year of the Flood‘s God’s Gardeners. The Gardeners live in a vegetarian commune guided by a man named Adam One, wear shapeless clothing, talk to bees, protest meat-slinging establishments, celebrate holidays such as St. Dian Fossey Day, live at odds with larger society run by the controlling CorpSeCorps, which prizes materialism and physical perfection over environmentalism, and ready themselves in anticipation of the “waterless flood.”
The novel’s two protagonists, Toby and Ren, are Gardeners. Toby, whose sections of the book are told in third person, is forced through a series of CorpSeCorps-ian tragedies to work at SecretBerger for the terrifying Blanco, who forces her into sexual servitude. Another SecretBerger girl escapes, joins the Gardeners and alerts them to Toby’s situation; during a protest of SecretBergers, they manage to save Toby and bring her into their fold. She is never totally won over by their edicts, but stays and becomes the best Gardener she can be, even rising to the exalted station of Eve Six.
Ren is a child at the novel’s start, brought into the Gardener’s world by her silly, beautiful mother Lucerne, who leaves her CorpSeCorps husband for Zeb, a hunky Gardener. Ren’s sections of the book are told in the first person, and are chatty and immature in tone, as befits innocent, befuddled Ren. She rescues a girl named Amanda from a life among the pleebrats–gangs of materialistic feral children–and they become the best of friends.
After a few years, Blanco comes after Toby and she is forced to leave the Gardeners, undergo identity-hiding plastic surgery and work as a CorpSeCorps spa manager. Zeb dumps Ren’s mother, who forces herself and Ren back into their former lives, claiming to have been kidnapped. Ren never adjusts back to life outside of the Gardeners. Through a long and winding series of events, she ends up poll dancing at a SeksClub called Scales and Tales.
Both luckily in isolation when the Waterless Flood arrives, Toby and Ren survive the plague and subsequent violence that wipes out most of humanity. The book is not told in a linear manner–passages from Scales and Tales weave into passages about Ren’s childhood, Toby’s life as Eve Six mingles with her solitary hunt for food post-Flood. The hows and whats of the story are revealed slowly.
Some of these hows and whats–I think the ones that come most directly from Oryx and Crake–struck me a a bit tagged-on to this narrative. I felt like I was getting a lot of information at the end of the novel that didn’t seem totally integrated. For example, the love of Ren’s life, a boy named Jimmy, does not seem hugely important at the time he is introduced, which is itself late in the book. But, as the novel tumbles towards its conclusion, he appears again and again in a way that seems more like coincidence than destiny. And Crake–I haven’t even mentioned him yet even though he turns out to be instrumental to the action of the story. Again, I have to read the other book, but I found myself feeling like some of the overlap was forced.
One strange gripe I had with this book was the preponderance of made up words and names. The landscape is full of animal splices, which are wonderfully imaginative–a lion crossed with a lamb, sheep with vibrantly colored human hair, raccoon / skunk hybrids–but their names stopped me each time I read them: liobams, Mo-Hairs, rakunks. Even CorpSeCorps, which appeared on nearly every page, was such an ugly word that it made me want to skim. The Gardeners, equally made up, had a recognizable name, which allowed me to concentrate on the story rather than the shape of the words on the page.
Despite the few issues I had with this book, I found myself thinking about it when not reading it, and continuing to think about it after I finished. As always, Ms. Atwood focused on female friendships, their fierceness and importance, in a way that few others do. When Ms. Atwood appears at the 92nd Street Y this fall, I hope to go and gain some more insight into her remarkable mind.