Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

In The Year of the Flood, Atwood does something unusual: she writes a book that’s set in the same time and place as her previous book, Oryx and Crake, but from the perspectives of different characters (see my review here).

In an interview on Amazon, she says that one reason for this was to address a problem in Oryx, the lack of female perspective.  I would agree that this is a weakness in Oryx, and a surprising one coming from Atwood.  Still, I loved the book so clearly it was a problem I could live with.

Atwood also writes this story from a very different perspective, that of the lower socioeconomic class out in what she calls the “pleeblands.”  In Oryx, Jimmy is brought up in a comfortably well-off family employed by the Helth-Wyzer corporation.  He lives in a “compound” which is basically corporate housing.  He’s under control of the company and knows little about what happens out in the rest of the world.  Jimmy can visit the pleeblands on a lark but he doesn’t have to survive there.

Year of the Flood is told by two women, Ren and Toby.  It took me a little while to understand the differences in these two characters.  Toby is older, more practical and knowledgeable.  Ren is younger and much more malleable, a trapeze dancer who works in a strip club.  The book begins in the time after what is referred to as the “Waterless Flood” – the release of a virus that kills nearly everyone.  Both Ren and Toby tell their stories through flashback, so we understand a lot more about life in this devastating world — even though from Oryx we already know about the use of BlyssPluss and the resulting pandemic.  Atwood paints a picture of a very tough, merciless life for most people in the pleeblands, if you don’t work for, and follow, the corporate government.

Before the Flood, Ren and Toby are part of a religious group called the Gardeners.  They are sort of a radical environmental group that falls somewhere between a commune and a cult, although calling it a cult is inaccurate because no one is brainwashed or forced to stay with them.  In fact, the Gardeners rescue Toby from a psychotic thug who has been raping her and will kill her if she tries to leave, and they rescue other characters as well. The Gardeners’ leader is Adam One, who sermonizes about the importance of respecting the earth, from eating vegetarian to reusing resources to growing food.  The Gardeners are also survivalists – Adam One preaches about the Waterless Flood, and he teaches his followers how to forage for food, and to keep emergency rations stored at all times. The Gardeners are run not just by this one person but by a team of leaders known as the Adams and Eves.

Atwood makes the Gardeners seem a little silly at times, with their made-up hymns and their homage every day to a different saint (some of these are people you’ll have heard of, like Dian Fossey and Rachel Carson).  At the same time it’s clear that the Gardeners are an ideal.  They maintain harmony among their group without being abusive, and they follow their principles but don’t demand zealous belief.  Toby confesses she’s not sure she’s a believer but Adam One responds that as long as her actions are consistent with their principles, she doesn’t have to believe everything they preach.

Also it is the Gardeners’ teachings, like avoiding drugs and storing emergency supplies, that help Ren and Toby to survive the virus and the challenges that follow.  Like many post-apocalypse stories, it isn’t necessarily surviving the plague that’s the hard part, it’s the hysteria, crime, and unavailability of resources that follow.

While I definitely recommend this book, I felt it lacked some of the impact that Oryx had.  I’ve read a number of comments by people who found Year of the Flood better, but I’m not one of them.  Yes, the characters are more sympathetic, and their lives are more compelling.  But Jimmy, with his lost mom and his sad love for Oryx, was compelling in his own way.

I think the reason is that the parallel story line was a bit distracting.  Jimmy kept popping up in the story and I kept trying to remember the first book and what role Ren, Toby and the Gardeners played.  There was also too much coincidence in terms of the same few characters losing each other and then finding each other again.  Atwood’s idea of parallel stories is a good one, since so much was left untold in the first book, but her story of Crake, Oryx and the Crakers (who sort of just “pass by” in this book)  held my interest much more.

Both books for me started slowly and were somewhat hard to follow at first, but in Oryx I felt like it all pulled together.  In Year of the Flood I had a problem with the story line that occurs towards the end of the book.  Instead of pulling the story together, Atwood veers into a side story driven not by our main characters but by an over-the-top villain and Ren’s not-so-three-dimensional friend Amanda.

One more thing: Year of the Flood tells what happens right after Oryx ends. Atwood explains that she got so many questions about the ending of Oryx that she wanted to write more about it.  Personally, I love an ambiguous ending.  I think I would have been much happier with this book if it told a story that was independent of the characters in Oryx.

So,  a mixed review but still a definite thumbs up, and I will acknowledge that many reviewers found Year of the Flood to be a worthy or even superior sequel to Oryx.  I just felt it was distracting because as I read, I kept comparing the two.  But thanks, Margaret Atwood, for writing two of the most compelling (and scary) books I’ve read in a while.

  4 comments for “Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

  1. January 9, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    I really admire your review. I attempted to review it a few days ago and couldn’t manage it – I loved it so much and there was so much I wanted to say, I just can’t pull it all together.

    I actually liked this one more than Oryx and Crake – although both were wonderful. I am looking forward to the third

  2. January 10, 2011 at 5:47 am

    I haven’t gotten around to reading this one yet but I was interested to hear your alternative views on this one and why Atwood wrote it.

  3. January 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Atwood always amazes me because even when I don’t particularly love a story, it’s still intelligent and thought provoking. I haven’t read this one, but I was really impressed with Oryx and Crake.

  4. January 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Great review. I like Year of the Flood more than Oryx and Crake. My favorite Atwood novels are The Blind Assassin and Cat’s Eye. I think Atwood is sometimes misunderstood. She is so much more than a feminist writer. She writes about the human condition so elegantly.

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