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The Year of the Flood – Andy thinks Atwood is Awesome. The End.

February 12, 2013

I’ve read a bit of Atwood over the years. Alias Grace was the first, I think, followed by The Blind Assassin, followed by a couple of her earlier novels, followed by a bit of something else. Moral Disorder, maybe? Autobiographical short stories, I think. Still haven’t got around to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is on my bookshelfflood. Travesty, that.

The Year of the Flood is a sequel of sorts – or prequel, perhaps, or perhaps more accurately a companion piece given that most of the action in both books is concurrent – to Oryx and Crake. Which I’ve also read, and hugely enjoyed, although I don’t remember as much of it as I’d like. You don’t need to have read the first novel to enjoy Flood – it stands alone and proud. But it inhabits the same fictional world as the earlier novel and the books share a number of characters. It would enrich your reading of Flood if you read Crake first.

Atwood is not a n0velist to shy away from challenges. Not thematically and not structurally, either. The Blind Assassin, in particular, boasts a rather cheeky construction, and if memory serves Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride are both quite ambitiously put together – and successfully so. Oryx and Crake – I think – is a little more traditional in structure, not that that’s a bad thing. The Year of the Flood’s structure isn’t terribly challenging (again, not a bad thing) but it’s a terrific way to spin a yarn.

Two women, Toby ( a a little older, a little wiser) and Ren (young, naive, perhaps not quite as bright as she wishes she was) have survived The Waterless Flood, a manmade apocalypse. But in different locations, and very different environments. Toby’s story is told in third person, Ren”s in first. For most of the book their stories are told in alternating sections. Each begins with a present-tense chapter about their lives post-Flood; their pre-Flood lives are then explored, mostly chronologically.

Actually – sorry. Each section doesn’t begin with a post-Flood chapter. That comes second. Each section actually begins with a sermon and a hymn.

Yep. You read right.

God’s Gardeners are an environmentally friendly, vegetarian, doomsday sect that both Ren and Toby become involved in – Ren through her mother, Toby through necessity. The Gardeners are an offshoot of Christianity and probably would call themselves Christians – there would certainly be Christians about who would subscribe the many of the beliefs Atwood presents here, and in her afterword she invites people to use her hymns for devotional purposes. Given that Atwood’s wicked sense of humour is to the fore in the sermons especially but in the hymns as well it’s hard to imagine them being used in a worshipful way, but hey. Anything’s possible.

There’s plenty that’s worthy of admiration here, but Atwood’s wit is well worth noting. She clearly has a great deal of sympathy for much of what God’s Gardeners have to say. But their taking of environmental and ethical concerns to a spiritual level is a bridge too far for her – and for Toby, who is the reader’s more rational window into this world. Atwood uses the sermons of Adam One (geddit?) in particular to take the piss out of a group of people she actually has a lot in common with (I suspect. I don’t actually know that for sure, but…).

Ironically, of course, while their spiritual beliefs are nonsensical (chat with the bees, anybody?) God’s Gardeners’ ideas about what’s going on in the world and what’s going to happen turn out to be bang on the money. For which reason they must be controlled and, ultimately, destroyed. This is the really frightening, and entirely believable, part of Atwood’s vision – a world in which corporations don’t just influence government, they are the government.

Atwood marries these Big Themes – religious exceptionalism, environmental catastrophe, authoritarianism -with the lives of a couple of women beautifully. I’m not sure it works from beginning to end – there are some scenes towards the climax that are just a wee bit too Hollywood thriller – but it is, ultimately, a hugely satisfying, entertaining, intellectually engaging and stimulating work of speculative literature. And it’s exciting to know that Atwood is working on a third volume in the series.

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