The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I really enjoyed Oryx and Crake (see previous post) and had high hopes of The Year of the Flood. Oryx and Crake leaves you on the edge of a clearing, as Jimmy stares at the first normal people he has seen since the outbreak of the manmade virus that wiped out, he thought, all of mankind but the Crakers, the super-hybrid men built by his friend Crake. But The Year of the Flood does not take Jimmy’s story much further than an afternoon and we have to wait most of the book to join him at that clearing.

Instead, The Year of the Flood follows Ren and Toby, two women involved in the religious group, The God’s Gardeners and the more violent splinter group, MaddAddam.  Interspersed between Ren and Toby’s stories are worship sessions given by Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, that always end in hymn singing from the God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook. Everyday in the calendar commemorates a creature, a group of creatures or a saint. The religion is deeply environmental and encourages its followers to recite the names of extinct creatures to keep their memory alive, to avoid eating meat and to prepare for the coming of the waterless flood that will erase most of mankind (who have failed to care for God’s garden) and allow the earth to regenerate.

Most of the characters are linked to Jimmy and Crake in some way and one could see The Year of the Flood as background to their story, for despite enjoying a greater understanding of how Crake’s story unfolded, I was never as taken by either Ren or Toby as I was by Jimmy. Perhaps their preparation for disaster makes them less empathetic? Certainly their less than straightforward belief in God’s Gardeners should make them more empathic. They aren’t crazy, they are people on the run: Ren is a child dragged to the Gardeners from a compound when her mother runs away with a Gardener and is then dragged away again when her mother gets fed up with him; Toby was saved by the Gardeners when they freed her from abusive boss at SecretBurgers, a restaurant chain with a very dubious meat supply. In a way, the Gardeners provides a haven for many who have simply pissed off the corporations in some way, placing its doomsday predictions into a more scientific context – they can see the danger in the corporations attempts to outwit nature: how can you truly control DNA splicing outcomes if God couldn’t control man?

I enjoyed some of the other ideas in the book: the skin suits that sort of stick to your skin and then become breathable, allowing women to dress up in sparkly scales or bird feathers.  Painball, a place where convicts are sent in lieu of a death sentence to fight for their survival is not dissimilar to the arena of The Hunger Games. In the end though, I was reading for the connections, looking for references to Jimmy and Crake, waiting to find out how Jimmy’s story would link up to Ren’s and to Toby’s. This has by no means diminished my eagerness to read MaddAddam however. As with Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood ends on a cliff-hanger. Ren, Toby, Amanda, Jimmy and two painballers sit around a campfire waiting for the singing people, who are marching towards them, to arrive. Are they the Crakers? We assume so given that the assembled characters had to pass through their territory, but they could be another group of people. After all, The Year of the Flood has shown us how many more people survived than Jimmy imagined in Oryx and Crake. Perhaps they are the Gardeners, who we know from Adam One’s sermons, are still alive. I will look forward to finding out next week. So whilst The Year of the Flood doesn’t feel as tight or as thought provoking as Oryx and Crake, it does create a more comprehensive world, one from which the final book in the trilogy will undoubtedly benefit.

After reading MaddAddam next week, I will be moving on to an unpublished novel, The Drift, by Hester Musson. Please do send in suggestions for the following weeks.

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