Oryx and Crake is far from my favorite Margaret Atwood novel. (I’m actually not sure I could choose a favorite Atwood novel because I enjoyed The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, and Cat’s Eye all so much, and all about equally.) But I didn’t dislike Oryx and Crake, and I came to admire it quite a lot on a second read, so I was happy to return to the world of that book in her latest, The Year of the Flood.
Both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are set in the future. Some sort of biological apocalypse, a “waterless flood,” has wiped out most of the world’s population, leaving only a remnant to carry on and to tell the story of what happened. In Oryx and Crake, we learn the story of Snowman, formerly Jimmy, who now lives with a group of genetically engineered humans, one of the many scientific experiments that may have played a role in the waterless flood.
In Year of the Flood, we meet Ren and Toby, two other survivors. Both women are former members of the God’s Gardeners, a religious group devoted to living in harmony with nature. We learn how they came to join the Gardeners and the separate paths they took that allowed them to survive the waterless flood. As in Oryx and Crake, Atwood tells the story in flashback, but there’s an added complication in that there are two present-day stories and two flashback stories. Ren’s story is told in the first person, so it’s generally easy to figure out who the focus is at any given time.
As with Oryx and Crake, the world of Year of the Flood is not especially original. How could it be, since they exist in the same world? It’s a place where corporations have the power, where science knows no limitations, and where people buy and sell pleasure and release from pain. Year of the Flood does add some additional texture to that world, particularly when it comes to the God’s Gardeners.
Some of my favorite passages in the book were the talks by Adam One, the founder of the group. Each section of the book was introduced with one of his talks, often saluting the work of great saints of their movement like Saint Dian Fossey, Martyr, or commemorating a special day, like Mole Day, the Festival of Underground Life. Each talk is followed by a schmaltzy hymn. The hymns were silly, but the talks were fascinating to a theology geek like me. Atwood tweaks and subverts traditional Christian teachings in ways that make perfect sense and the result is a coherent belief system that fits the world she has created. The God’s Gardeners themselves are, like their world, not particularly original, but I liked getting a look into the thought processes of their leader, even when it got a little silly. After all, don’t all religions seem silly to outsiders? I also liked seeing how Ren and Toby became part of the movement. Neither came into it entirely voluntarily, and their commitment evolved over time. Toby’s journey in particular was interesting to me.
Year of the Flood also harks back to some of Atwood’s past themes, such as female friendships, particularly among young women. I would have liked to have seen more development in that area. Ren and her childhood friends Bernice and Amanda have the same kind of twisted young-girl friendship that we saw in Cat’s Eye, but the story moved so swiftly that there wasn’t time and space to understand why Ren chose as she did and why she remained so fiercely loyal for so long. And so I couldn’t quite buy one of the core relationships in the book. That, I think, is a flaw of having two central characters whose stories are not fully integrated.
Toby is of an older generation than Ren, and she’s not part of the schoolyard politics, and when her story merges with Ren’s it feels coincidental, and altogether too convenient. In fact, much in the latter half of the book feels too convenient. Minor characters come back again and again, and I was left wondering whether these were the only people who were ever part of this world and whether anyone actually died in the waterless flood. Somehow the narrative stakes seem awfully low when the bodies on the ground all belong to strangers.
Fans of Oryx and Crake will probably enjoy seeing some familiar characters from that book—all three central characters from O&C make appearances here, as do a few minor characters, and minor characters from O&C are central to Year of the Flood. Amanda, Ren, and Zeb (Ren’s stepfather) all appear in O&C. But you won’t need to have read Oryx and Crake to understand this book. The two inform each other, but they don’t rely on each other.
I did enjoy The Year of the Flood, but it isn’t Atwood’s finest work. It’s possible that, like Oryx and Crake, this might improve on a second reading, but I’m skeptical. In fact, most of the reliability questions I found intriguing on my second reading of O&C don’t seem to factor in to this story at all. I mused for a while that Atwood was trying to get at something about authorial design paralleling God’s design. There’s a lot of talk about God’s plan in Adam One’s speeches, and it would explain the coincidences and miraculous escapes. However, if that’s what Atwood is up to, she’s too subtle about it.
If you do like dystopian fiction or Margaret Atwood, this is certainly worth reading. Mediocre Atwood is still darn good reading, but to really see Atwood in top form, try something else: Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride for women in relationship, The Handmaid’s Tale for a frightening futuristic vision, or The Blind Assassin for a twisty blend of sci-fi and family secrets.