I recently picked up The Handmaid’s Tale for about the fourth time, and was happily going to make it my number 55, when I saw Margaret Atwood’s new book was on sale. I hadn’t realised she had a new one coming out, and since I had a Border’s gift card and it was half price, I picked up the hardback and made off with it. OK, I did pay. I wasn’t very far in when it all started to seem very familiar. I knew this world, I’d been here before. A quick Google search told me The Year of the Flood takes place in the same future as that of Oryx and Crake. Great, so I wasn’t going crazy. Unfortunately I hadn’t really enjoyed Oryx and Crake. Crap, was I not going to like this either?
The world these two books are set in is some not too distant future, where apparently people are happy to eat endangered species, gene splicing is common and has created pigoons and rakunks and mo’hairs, and the shady Corporations run everything, poisoning the population for their own gains, and using the CorpSeCorps police to make people disappear if they don’t follow the rules. Living outside these rules are The Gardeners, a sect devoted to nature as well as science, trying to preserve their way of life. They create gardens on rooftops and follow the teachings of Adam One, and the other Adams and Eves. They talk of the Waterless Flood, a natural disaster that will end the world as we know it.
The disaster, when it comes, is not strictly natural. It spreads like a plague, infecting people quickly all over the world. If you’ve read Oryx and Crake you’ll know where it came from and what happened to those infected, but there’s not much explanation here. The story focuses on two survivors. Ren, a trapeze dancer at the strip club Scales, is locked up tight in the Sticky Zone, already quarantined before the outbreak. She’s perfectly safe, only the door doesn’t open from the inside, and her food isn’t going to last forever. Toby is waiting it out in the health spa where she works, fighting off the pigs that attack her garden and wondering if she’s going crazy. Through both women we learn about the Gardeners, about their lives before the flood, and their struggle for survival.
The Year of the Flood is similar to Oryx and Crake for me, in that it doesn’t have the same emotional weight as say The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road. It is beautifully written, as all Atwood’s books are, but the impact of the writing isn’t the same. For much of it we’re in the past, and even when we’re living through Ren and Toby’s present, we don’t get a strong sense of just how desperate their situations are, or how awful the world is. I didn’t feel as much fear for them, or at least not until the very end, when I was definitely invested in the characters and what would become of them.
Also, I find it hard to relate to this version of the future. That was the problem I had with Oryx and Crake. I don’t see it going that way, for whatever reason, it’s just not my idea of a possible future. Perhaps I am naive, or too hopeful. It just didn’t feel true enough I guess, and it’s a little too light-hearted a lot of the time. I’m not saying it’s full of jokes and laugh out loud moments, but there’s something about it that makes it difficult to feel moved by their plight. All these people have died, the world as we know it is over, but I never felt that moved by what was lost, not as a spectator, and not from Toby and Ren. It’s not devastating. Maybe I’m just used to end of the world books being traumatic to read, but if you’re looking for a dark and twisted nightmare vision of the future, I don’t think this is it. I wouldn’t want to live there of course, but there’s been worse.
I think maybe it’s just a bit too clever for its own good. The rakunks and pigoons, the pleebs, the names of the saints and those damn Gardeners hymns, Adam One’s sermons…I think if you’d lifted those last two out you wouldn’t miss much to be honest. It gives you more of an idea of the timeline maybe, but that’s about it. I didn’t find them necessary to my understanding of the story. In fact I think they took away from it somehow.
Having said all that, I still enjoyed it. I really did. I couldn’t put it down and it passed my ‘Just one more chapter, oh look it’s 3am, shit I have work tomorrow’ test. I did need to know what happened to the characters, I was desperate to get to the end and see where it crossed over with Oryx and Crake. I don’t think you need to have read that to understand this book (although it will spoil the ending of that if you don’t read them in order). It’s not a sequel, it’s more of a companion, and the events unfold at the same time. I want to read Oryx and Crake again now to see if I like it any better second time around, and also see where the characters in this one turn up, as I really can’t remember. Some of the crossovers here seemed a little convenient at times, but it might make more sense after a re-read.
I would definitely like to see another continuation of the story, as it’s left open-ended enough to do so, but I don’t know if there will be one. Maybe Atwood has explored all she wanted to explore with this addition to the Oryx and Crake world. Maybe her next one could be a little more depressing though. Maybe it could make me want to put a stop to the madness of the world now before we get there.