The Year of the Flood

A new novel by Margaret Atwood is always a treat to be savoured. I am a rabid fan of her work and picked up The Year of the Flood with the sense of anticipation I’ve had for her fiction since The Handmaid’s Tale shook me to my readerly core as a teenager. The Year of the Flood is set in a world that will be familiar to readers of Oryx and Crake – a dystopian near future in which elected governments have all but disappeared replaced by corporations with a capitalist imperative so refined they create diseases for the bounty to be had from curing them. Science has replaced God with no aspect of human existence safe from ‘improvement’. Chickens have been whittled down to their breasts and grow on racks. Coffee beans are programmed to ripen simultaneously. Pigs are enabled to grow human organs for transplant and have developed a human capacity for revenge. Roses glow luminescent at night. Rakunks are popular household pets. The whimsical ‘Liobams’ combine the cuteness of lambs with the ferocity of lions.

Why?

Why not.

Where Oryx and Crake was largely set in the manicured compounds of the privileged corporations, The Year of the Flood is the ‘pleebland’ retelling. The downbeat pleeblands are depressing housing estates glimpsed briefly in Oryx and Crake by the corporation scientists and managers as they shuttled between their gated communities. In a nod to Orwell’s proles the ‘pleebrats’ distract themselves with gang violence, rampant consumerism and mindless sex.

The story centres on one of the resistance groups to the CorpseCorp (the preeminent Corporation) known as The God’s Gardeners, who made a brief appearance in Oryx and Crake in the form of Jimmy/Snowman’s righteous college roommate Bernice (indeed one of the pleasures to be had from reading these books as a companion pair is the third story formed by the interstice between the two). The Gardeners are a vegan horticulturalist sect with St Francis of Assisi influences who name Dian Fossey and Stephen Jay Gould amongst their ‘saints’. Each chapter opens with a sermon from the Gardener’s founder, Adam One, and a song from their ‘oral hymnbook’; all rather ironic given the Gardener’s paranoia about the written word and refusal to commit anything to paper. Atwood has her tongue firmly in cheek with these mock sermons, which have even been set to music. The comic element is a welcome relief in a book which is otherwise relentlessly bleak.

We are introduced to the Gardeners through two reluctant converts: Toby and Ren. Toby is rescued from her sociopathic boss in a Gardener raid and goes into hiding with them. Although relieved to be free of the sexual violence of her former life Toby is sceptical about the Gardeners and their creed. She quietly goes about tending the bees, making honey and teaching herb lore to the young Gardeners who have nicknamed her ‘The Dry Witch’. Ren is one of those young students. Like Toby, circumstance rather than conviction has led her to the Gardeners. Her mother Lucerne, momentarily bored with being a compound wife, conceives a lusty passion for Gardener Zeb and follows him to the Gardener Rooftop, child in tow. Young Ren longs for a return to the compound life and the shiny trinkets that the Gardener’s forbid her.

Toby and Ren tell their stories of life with the Gardeners up to and including the ‘waterless flood’ of the title: the prophesied apocalypse that wipes out the vast majority of human life on the planet. Toby and Ren’s voices are vivid and authentic (though the shift from Ren’s first person voice to Toby’s third person jars a little at first). The universe they inhabit is rich and complex and unnerving for being simultaneously recognisable and bizarre. Atwood has built an alternative world in which no detail feels forced or hollow. It is visceral, frightening and all too potentially real.

Omnipresent surveillance, paranoia and fakery have truncated the scale of human emotion such that coarseness and casual violence are the norm. The sexual violence in the book is graphic and shocking: a murdered trapeze artist dangles from a high wire with a broken bottle in her vagina, Toby fears being ‘fucked into a puree’ and two rapists argue about who will go first to ‘prime the pump’. Even the Gardeners, with their ostensible reverence for nature and nurturing, are curiously loveless.

Whilst the emotional truncation makes sense as a by-product of Atwood’s dystopia, it makes for a problematic reading experience as even the central characters have an antiseptic quality. There is a coldness at the heart of this book that is impossible to shake. I found myself thinking about another recent post apocalyptic novel – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – in which I practically sweat blood in my anxiety for the father and son. Toby and Ren interested me, but they did not move me. The Year of the Flood is vivid, powerful and compelling. But I find myself wondering if Atwood is no longer motivated to tell a cautionary tale – with the degree of emotional connection this entails – and has moved into a state of brilliant but chilled resignation.

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