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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 119.
- Review Date: 2009-07-20
- Reviewer: Staff
SignatureReviewed by Marcel TherouxIn her 2002 speculative novel, Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood depicted a dystopic planet tumbling toward apocalypse. The world she envisaged was in the throes of catastrophic climate change, its wealthy inhabitants dwelling in sterile secure compounds, its poor ones in the dangerous “pleeblands” of decaying inner cities. Mass extinctions had taken place, while genetic experiments had populated the planet with strange new breeds of animal: liobams, Mo'Hairs, rakunks. At the end of the book, we left its central character, Jimmy, in the aftermath of a devastating man-made plague, as he wondered whether to befriend or attack a ragged band of strangers. The novel seemed complete, closing on a moment of suspense, as though Atwood was content simply to hint at the direction life would now take. In her profoundly imagined new book, The Year of the Flood, she revisits that same world and its catastrophe.Like Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood begins just after the catastrophe and then tracks back in time over the corrupt and degenerate world that preceded it. But while the first novel focused on the privileged elite in the compounds and the morally bankrupt corporations, The Year of the Flood depicts more of the world of the pleebs, an edgy no-man's land inhabited by criminals, sex workers, dropouts and the few individuals who are trying to resist the grip of the corporations.The novel centers on the lives of Ren and Toby, female members of a fundamentalist sect of Christian environmentalists, the God's Gardeners. Led by the charismatic Adam One, whose sermons and eco-hymns punctuate the narrative, the God's Gardeners are preparing for life after the prophesied Waterless Flood. Atwood plays some of their religion for laughs: their hymns have a comically bouncing, churchy rhythm, and we learn that both Ren and Toby have been drawn toward the sect for nonreligious reasons. Yet the gentleness and benignity of the Gardeners is a source of hope as well as humor. As absurd as some of their beliefs appear, Atwood seems to be suggesting that they're a better option than the naked materialism of the corporations.This is a gutsy and expansive novel, rich with ideas and conceits, but overall it's more optimistic than Oryx and Crake. Its characters have a compassion and energy lacking in Jimmy, the wounded and floating lothario at the previous novel's center.Each novel can be enjoyed independently of the other, but what's perhaps most impressive is the degree of connection between them. Together, they form halves of a single epic. Characters intersect. Plots overlap. Even the tiniest details tessellate into an intricate whole. In the final pages, we catch up with Jimmy once more, as he waits to encounter the strangers. This time around, Atwood commits herself to a dramatic and hopeful denouement that's in keeping with this novel's spirit of redemption.Marcel Theroux's most recent novel, Far North, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in June.
Atwood revisits the apocalypse
Oryx & Crake fans rejoice! Margaret Atwood triumphantly returns with The Year of the Flood, in which readers are once more catapulted into the smoking embers of a world that faintly echoes our own. After centuries of rampant moral and environmental exploitation, the Earth has been decimated—perhaps beyond repair—by a “waterless flood,” one that comes in the form of a plague and leaves few survivors standing.
The Year of the Flood occurs in parallel with Oryx & Crake, meaning the two books can be read in any order. This time, we trace the fall of the human race through the eyes of two female narrators, Toby and Ren. When the flood hit, these two women were members of God’s Gardeners, an organization focused on sustainability, its principles founded in early Christian scripture updated with a modern-day vegan twist. Through interwoven, retrospective narratives, Toby and Ren share how they each came to join the Gardeners, and how they witnessed the eventual crumble and collapse of civilization. Living as they do in a world where healthcare corporations are actively spreading disease so they can profit from providing the cures, prisoners are sentenced to Battle Royale-style death matches in which winners get their freedom, and losers are brutally slaughtered, and the only animals to walk the Earth are genetically engineered splices, it is only too easy to appreciate Atwood’s indictment of our own 21st-century world.
At times this skewering can feel heavy-handed, as if the storytelling has taken a backseat to environmental and corporate whistle-blowing, but even so, no one can deny that Atwood’s message remains chilling, timely and necessary. For all the portents of doom and destruction caused by our own hands, Atwood is at her very best when she is focusing on the human struggle to survive, despite the odds. Above all else, readers will be moved by Toby and Ren’s story; in a strange land, these women feel like family. The Year of the Flood is sure to thrill fans of speculative fiction, while also converting an entirely new wave of Atwood devotees.
Stephenie Harrison writes from Nashville.