The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood opens in Year Twenty-Five, after the Waterless Flood has destroyed most of mankind and dramatically changed the face of the earth. The story is narrated alternately by two surviving women: Ren, a young dancer in a high-end strip club, and Toby, high-ranking member of God’s Gardeners, who is barricaded inside the luxurious AnnYoo spa.

Neither woman has any idea how many other survivors are out there, if anyone at all. Both are running short on supplies and not sure what to do next.

Much of the wildlife we are familiar with is long since extinct, but this new world is full of strange, sometimes frightening gene-spliced life forms: rakunks – the large striped cross between skunks and raccoons, which thankfully lack the smelly spray; the Mo’hair sheep designed specifically to grow human hair for wigs; and the frightening liobams – a lion/lamb blend, designed by a religious extremist group who were tired of waiting for the biblical prediction that the lion would lay down with the lamb, and decided to do it themselves.

The first half/two-thirds of the story is told though flashbacks in the lives of these two women, revisiting the years leading up to the Waterless Flood. Toby and Ren are desperately trying to make sense of this new world, and the circumstances that brought it on, and examine the last twenty or so years of their lives to figure it out. Much of the story revolves around God’s Gardeners, their beliefs, and their way of life. Later, storytelling shifts into present tense, Ren and Toby reunite (they knew each other through the Gardeners) and help each other to survive their new and often violent reality.

I was interested to see that “Year Twenty-Five” did not mean “twenty-five years since the flood” as the flood seems to have happened somewhere in year twenty-four or twenty-five. It is not clear when or how the new counting began, and there are a few references to years in the 20th century, in a casual way that implies it was not so very long ago.

My overall impression of the novel is that I was blown away. Atwood had created a frightening and violent new reality – but a reality that wasn’t too much of a stretch from our current circumstances. In fact, Atwood refuses to label books like The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake as ‘science fiction’ as she insists nothing happens in her books that could not happen ‘in real life.’ Which of course just adds to the horror.

My only criticism is there was a bit too much of the Gardener’s theology for my taste. Every few chapters, we were treated to a sermon from Adam One, the Gardener’s leader. The sermons always revolved around a saint’s day, and the significance of the celebration (there were some great saints, by the way: Saint Terry Fox may have been my favourite). It’s not that I don’t see the relevance to the rest of the story. The Gardeners knew what was coming, and their whole theology was designed to prepare people for it. It is no coincidence that so many Gardeners survived. I just have to be honest and say that I found the sermons and accompanying hymns to make for very dull reading. Luckily, these passages were never more than a few pages.

Readers of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake might remember the Gardeners. You might even remember Ren and a few of her friends. I did not, at least not right away. In the final chapters it became more obvious. You see, what I didn’t realize is The Year of the Flood is a continuation or retelling of the story from Oryx and Crake. A side-quel, if you will. I think I remember hearing this when the book was first released (September 2009), but I had forgotten it by the time I finally read the book (last week).

Two other excuses explanations as to why I didn’t really get as much as I should have from the book:

  • I read Oryx and Crake immediately after it was released in 2003. I received it as a gift from coworkers, when in the hospital recovering from surgery. I read a lot of books in the hospital that year. While I remember general story lines and whether or not I enjoyed these books, I remember almost no details from any of them. Something to do with pain killers affecting long-term memory.
  • A friend had borrowed my copy and removed the paper book jacket, so I was reading the plain hardcover version, minus the jacket – which likely clearly states the link between this and the previous novel.

While The Year of the Flood can certainly be read as a stand alone novel, you can’t try to read it as a stand alone novel if you have already read part one. My fuzzy memories of some of the characters, and the Gardeners from Oryx and Crake sometimes caused confusion. I obviously cannot blame Ms. Atwood for this. But I do plan to reread both at some point, to gain greater appreciation for both stories, and her purpose in writing it from such different perspectives.

Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; 1 edition (Sep 8 2009)
ISBN-10: 0771008449
ISBN-13: 978-0771008443