Review: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood’s sequel, or more accurately companion, to Oryx and Crake.  Both novels are set in a near future, post-apocalyptic world, where Atwood shows what might happen to our society if we continue the destructive behaviors she believes are destroying our planet.  Where Oryx and Crake told the story through the eyes of two men, The Year of the Flood centers on two women, Toby and Ren, survivors of a devastating “waterless flood.”  The women met as members of God’s Gardeners, an environmentalist sect.  Through flashback Atwood covers the 20 years leading up to the flood.  She describes in detail day-to-day life with God’s Gardeners: their leaders, rituals, and hymns.  Atwood’s world is also populated with genetically engineered animals, unusual food, and corporations who claim to be doing good in the world while actually wreaking havoc.

The book got off to a slow start, as Atwood meticulously built her world.  But about halfway through, the pace suddenly accelerated.  Characters’ lives intertwined, including some key figures from Oryx and Crake.  The catastrophic nature of the flood left people stranded and alone, foraging for food while remaining ever on guard against predators.  Were there any “good guys” left, or would this all end in a Hunger Games-style fight to the death?  Will the planet survive?

The story was both suspenseful and thought-provoking.  And while I would probably agree with Atwood on several points, I found her treatment heavy-handed.  This was especially true of the God’s Gardeners.  I loved their self-sufficiency and animal rights activism, but the homilies and hymns in each chapter were a bit much.  Still, I’m looking forward to the third book in this trilogy, MaddAdam, which is scheduled for publication in August.

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Review: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Human society, they claimed, was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain. It was like a giant slug eating its way relentlessly through all the other bioforms on the planet, grinding up life on earth and shitting it out the backside in the form of pieces of manufactured and soon-to-be-obsolete plastic junk. (p. 243)

Snowman, formerly known as Jimmy, lives in relative solitude, sleeping in a lean-to and scavenging for food and water in a city destroyed by a disaster.  He wears a watch, although it no longer functions, and covers himself with a bed sheet as protection from the sun’s harsh rays.  Snowman also watches over the “Children of Crake,” a group of … what are they?  People? Aliens?  And how did all this come to pass?

Snowman’s entire life is set sometime in a near future, that bears some resemblance to the world we know today.  The story takes us back to Snowman’s childhood, when his father worked for one of many corporations using science to “improve” the world.  Through genetic engineering, they seek to evolve human and animal life to advanced forms, free from perceived weaknesses.  But of course that comes with a price to people and society.  Snowman and his best friend Crake spend their days in typical boy/teen pursuits, like videogames, but even these have a somewhat sinister aspect.  As they grow up, their paths diverge — Crake is more scientifically minded, and is recruited by a renowned university — but they meet up again in their 20s, along with Oryx, a beautiful woman they have both admired for years.

Along the way, Margaret Atwood leaves tiny clues, so the reader begins to envision what will happen, and how Snowman ends up as possibly the last remaining human on earth.  It’s both gripping and highly disturbing.  Atwood considers her work “speculative fiction,” not science fiction.  And Oryx and Crake has the requisite dystopian and apocalyptic elements.  It’s not my usual fare, but she is so good at it, I could easily imagine Snowman’s world, and see the path to it from the world I know today.  In writing Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood said she intended to give one answer to the question, “What if we continue down the road we’re already on?  How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?”  And frankly, her answer is bleak.  It could be a wake-up call.  Or we could all just continue down the road we’re already on …

The Sunday Salon Review: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Another Sunday, and a new month, too!  This week brought more nasty weather — ice storms followed by rain — so why am I pinning my hopes on the groundhog, who predicted an early spring?  People believe what they want to hear, I guess 🙂

Thankfully the crummy weather was offset by good reading.  Following on the heels of Virago Reading Week, I picked up the feminist classic and 1986 Booker Prize nominee, The Handmaid’s Tale.  My daughter had to read it last summer for her AP Lit class, and I’ve eyed it for months now.  I’m surprised I never read it before!  What rock was I living under?

I was also stunned to find that the 1986 Booker Prize winner was Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils.  This was one of my all-time least favorite Booker winners (read my review).  And The Old Devils is a very masculine book, celebrating the joys of drinking, and sex with various partners.  I find it really sad that the Booker judges awarded the prize to Amis and not Atwood, who wrote a much more thought-provoking book describing a totalitarian society in which women existed solely for the benefit of the men. Sigh.  Have we learned anything in the intervening 25 years?  I hope so.

Read on:
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The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling view of a repressive, controlling society — the Republic of Gilead — in which women are confined to specific roles, all designed to meet the needs of men.  They lose personal freedom of both movement and speech, and fear for their lives.  Women are grouped into castes and wear a common uniform.  Marthas are responsible for cooking and housework.  Wives represent the highest caste, married to high-ranking men called Commanders (“ordinary” women are known as Econowives).  The Handmaids’ primary purpose is reproduction.  Handmaids are assigned to Commanders, and subjected to a monthly ritual in hopes they will conceive.  Those who fail (and yes, it’s always the Handmaid’s fault) are moved to a new post, and exiled if they remain unable to bear children.

The story is set well into the future, but the characters still remember their lives “before.”  Offred is one of the Handmaids, separated from her husband and young daughter and assigned to a high-ranking Commander.  She recounts her training period in the “Red Center,” and the systematic way in which the women are forced to submit to governmental authority.  She dutifully dons the required long red habit, and the white headgear that blocks most of her vision.  Once in the Commander’s house, Offred discovers evidence of the earlier Handmaid, including a mysterious foreign phrase carved in the floor.  On her daily trips to the village shops, Offred makes tentative contact with other Handmaids.  While they cannot converse openly, every opportunity to exchange a few whispered words helps them better understand the world around them.  And yet one never knows who to trust.  Men and women are routinely executed and left on display.  Fear and betrayal run like electricity through the community.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot; it won’t do justice to the book because it really must be experienced.  Margaret Atwood paints a bleak and disturbing picture, all the more so because of its resemblance to certain aspects of contemporary life.  Atwood drops several hints about how the United States turned into Gilead, critiquing many aspects of late 20th-century society.  Despite its extremes, it’s not that difficult to imagine.  Some aspects of Gilead exist in the world today: extreme repression and fear are not uncommon, and even the most “enlightened” societies subjugate certain elements.  As Offred adjusted to her new life and struggled with loss, isolation, and confusion, I willed her to find a way out.  I wanted the totalitarian regime to crumble.  I wanted good to triumph over evil.  But that’s not the point of this novel, and Atwood won’t let her readers off the hook so easily.  This is the sort of book that strikes you between the eyes, leaving you with a lot to think about.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.