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.
For more reviews of The Year of the Flood, see The Boston Bibliophile, Random Jottings, Books and Cooks, a lovely shore breeze, Steph and Tony Investigate, and The Mookse and the Gripes.
I have not read this one, but enjoyed your review. I enjoyed Edible Woman by her!
My copy of this arrived yesterday but I’m not rushing to read it. I’ve been wanting to have more Atwood in my life recently but think I may immerse myself in Lady Oracle instead. I gave up on Oryx & Crake a few years ago but do intend to give it another attempt as I didn’t hate it.
I am with you in that I certainly do no think this is Atwood’s strongest book, but then again, I also didn’t think O&C was all that amazing either. I thought Atwood told an interesting enough story, certainly one that is relevant and important, but it lacked a certain finesse and subtlety that I think an author of her stature is capable of. The condemnations of everything from religion to the government all felt so heavy-handed and vitriolic, at times I was like, “Oh, Margaret Atwood is ranting again… what a surprise… Sigh.” So I guess that while you felt elements were potentially too subtle, I was so fixated on what wasn’t subtle I didn’t spend much time thinking about the parts that might be! ;)
I did like this one a lot, but it will certainly not be the last Atwood I read.
I’m not so much a fan of Atwood’s dystopian novels, with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale, which I admired but found deeply troubling. I love her in Alias Grace and Robber Bride mode and keep hoping she’ll write another novel like those!
diane: Edible Woman is one of the few of her novels I haven’t read. One of these days…
Claire: I liked Lady Oracle well enough, but it’s not a favorite. I’d rank it about equally with this one and Oryx and Crake, actually, although it’s altogether different sort of book.
Steph: Yes, there’s definitely a lack of subtlety about the environmental/anti-corporate message. But subtlely is rarely characteristic of dystopia, so it didn’t bother me much–never quite got preachy (well, except in the actual preachy). There was just enough coincidence and God’s plan talk for me to see potential for something more interesting about higher powers and plans, but I’m not convinced she was even trying to go there.
caite: Even when Atwood disapoints I find her books worth reading, so I’ll probably read her next as well.
litlove: If you’re not wild about Atwood’s dystopian stuff, this is probably one to avoid. Alias Grace didn’t actually do much for me–my interest fizzled about midway–but I keep thinking I might try it again because it may very well have been my mood at the time.
I’ve never read Atwood, which is a CRIME! Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but still. I must remedy that. I have Alias Grace, but my husband has a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is probably where I should start.
What a great review you’ve written. I agree with you that this isn’t Atwood’s best, or at least my favorite of her work. Of course, not my favorite Atwood is still a pretty darn good read. I thought O&C improved with the second read, so it will be interesting to see if this does. Oh, and don’t forget Alias Grace for twisty historical fiction!
Dorothy: Uh-oh–shall we be hauling you off to bibliophile jail now? I think Handmaid’s Tale was my first Atwood, so it certainly worked to hook me.
Tara: Thanks! And yes, substandard Atwood is still good reading. I don’t know, though, if I’ll bother with this one again. I gave O&C a second try mostly because of this book.
I love Margaret Atwood. I went through a big period when I read her books one after the other. I’m not sure I could pick a favorite–perhaps the Handmaid’s Tale (which I’ve read at least three times) or The Blind Assassin. I start fizzling out about the time Oryx and Crake was published and haven’t read any of her books since, though I have that one on my shelves. I really must pull it out as this puts me back in the mood again. You’re right–even mediocre Atwood is head and shoulder above the rest!
Danielle: When I first discovered Atwood (10 or 12 years ago), I binged on her books. Since then, I’ve mostly just read them as they come out. I find that even her weaker books are worth the time.
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I love many of Atwood’s books however with Onyx and Crake, I quit after just a few pages. This was a number of years ago though. Your review makes me want to try again and I definitely want to read the Year of the Flood. My absolute favourite Atwood is Alias, Grace.
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