Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood is a difficult and disturbing book. I liked it. I finished it on Sunday and I have been thinking about it ever since.
The book takes place during the same course of events as happened in Oryx and Crake only this time instead of being with the scientists we are with the people on the outside. The story is told by two women, Toby and Ren, in alternating sections that often start in the present and then flashback. The last third of the book is all present tense and the story moves forward to end exactly where Oryx and Crake ends.
Our narrator Toby is an adult in her early twenties when circumstances force her to leave the security of the corporation compound and make a life for herself out in the pleeblands. Things are not going well for her when she is rescued from working at SecretBurger (the secret is you don’t know what kind of meat is in the burger) where her criminal boss, Blanco, had chosen her for his woman. Toby was so beaten and bruised that she knew if she didn’t get away soon she’d be dead like the girl who was Blanco’s before her.
She is rescued by the Gardeners, a sort of back-to-nature eco-religious group. The Gardeners are vegetarians and grow gardens on rooftops. They know that at some point there is going to be a waterless flood that, like Noah’s flood, destroys humankind. To prepare for the flood, they learn survival skills and build secret caches of food and other supplies they call Ararats in various places.
Ren comes to the Gardeners as a young girl with her mother who has left her husband because she is having an affair with Zeb, a tall, handsome Gardener who is often sent on secret missions. But after nearly growing up with the Gardeners, Ren’s mother’s affair ends and she takes Ren back to the corporation compound where they used to live inventing a story that she and Ren were kidnapped. Through many twists, Ren eventually ends up back in the Pleeblands working at a club as a dancer/prostitute.
But that is all just plot. There is a definite environmental message of course. The book is peppered with Gardener sermons and hymns. The hymns are marvelous songs to the weeds, in praise of Saint Dian (Fossey), moles, the water-shrew. Margaret Atwood is the only one who could ever work australopithecus into a hymn. The hymns have all been set to music and you can hear snippets of them at the book’s website.
At the heart of the book though is the friendships between women. It is Toby and Ren and their friendships with each other and other women in the book that really carry the whole thing. The men, even the Gardener men, lack something vital. It is because of Toby and Ren that the book is not horribly bleak. These two women become sort of stand-ins for the human race to be compared to the genetically engineered new humans that were created in Oryx and Crake. Toby and Ren provide a hope that not all is lost and broken.
I hope I have managed to give you some idea about the book. Like I said at the beginning, it is difficult and disturbing in many ways, but well worth the time and effort. Should you read Oryx and Crake first if you haven’t already? It’s a good idea but not necessary though because it is a companion book both should be read at some point. And because of the way the book ends, I suspect Atwood will be writing another one in this setting. But then again, maybe she plans on leaving the fate of humanity as an open question.