Note – One of the pleasures of reading Oryx and Crake & The Year of the Flood comes from the discoveries and revelations that happen throughout. It would be wrong, and irresponsible as a reviewer, for me to ruin that. So this is a strange (and ridiculously long) review. Perhaps it is less a review and more of an enthusiastic endorsement. Preferring to err on the side of caution, I’ve provided almost no plot summary and only one very small excerpt. What I hope I have retained and conveyed is my admiration for these books, as well as what I feel makes them so special.
Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood revisits the dystopian world first introduced in Oryx and Crake. It is a future that appears all too possible, as Ms. Atwood follows current science to its logical conclusion. In her brave new world the class and wealth divide has been sharply drawn between those living in the Compounds (private, gated communities) and those locked out in the Pleeblands (poor, urban centers). Global corporations – called the CorpSeCorps – control everything. Genetically altered bio-forms and foods are an insidious part of daily life. Religious cults, such as the God’s Gardeners, predict the coming of a waterless flood and attract converts from all levels of society. Read together, these two novels succeed in creating a beautifully realized, if deeply disturbing, vision of what could be.
And yet this vision is anything but bleak and depressing. Ms. Atwood avoids the gloom & doom by enlisting engaging and sympathetic narrators. Jimmy (also called Snowman) is the endearing slacker raised in the Compounds who told us the original, strange story of Oryx and of Crake. In contrast, The Year of the Flood is narrated by two women: Toby, who survived the worst that the Pleeblands could throw at a person to become an unlikely elder of the God’s Gardeners. And Ren, a sweet girl raised as both a God’s Gardener and a compound brat, who eventually chooses to become a dancer at the legendary Pleeblands’ sex club Scales & Tails. It gives little away to tell you that all three survive the waterless flood – in actuality a global pandemic – each for different reasons and in different circumstances. At the end of the world Margaret Atwood manages to provide her readers with hope.
Admittedly this hope isn’t as apparent in Oryx and Crake, which on first reading can be unsatisfying. (Particularly when it was first released and before anyone expected there to be a second book). I felt that it left too many unanswered questions and blank spaces. Imagine putting together a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle and realizing you only have eight hundred of the pieces. Sure the picture is there, but only partially. These holes in the picture are a difficulty intrinsic to true first person narrators. Jimmy is a child of the Compounds who never fits in. His knowledge of the Pleeblands is that of a rich kid slumming. He is his friend Crake’s intellectual inferior and has an incomplete understanding of what Crake has done. Jimmy does not (cannot) explain the who’s, how’s and why’s. He’s limited to relating the end result, fulfilling the role which Crake assigned to him. His narration of Oryx and Crake is a tortured attempt to figure out what the hell happened. In the end Jimmy can only tell us what he knows… which, we ultimately discover, isn’t all that much. While beautifully written and absorbing, Oryx and Crake alone can be frustrating.
The Year of the Flood fills in many, though not all, of those pieces of information missing from Oryx and Crake. The reader is still restricted to one narrator’s knowledge and experiences at a time, but both Toby and Ren move further towards bridging the gaps in our understanding. Whereas Jimmy knew the Compounds best, Toby knows the Pleeblands. Her main contribution is an intimate knowledge of the God’s Gardeners, which plays an integral part in the larger overall story and which Jimmy only had a peripheral awareness of. As an Eve (the Gardeners’ leaders are called Adams and Eves), it is she who relays the history and politics of the group. It is also her Pleeblands past, always close by, which provides the main source of suspense in the novel.
The most interesting of the three narrators, in my mind, is Ren. She straddles the line between both worlds, wandering around like some contemporary version of Candide. Everyone underestimates her, including herself. She is the closest Atwood comes to a third person narrator (and it’s not all that close) – because she is always a little bit apart from and outside of the inner circles where decisions get made. At the same time, she is in many ways the common link between people and stories. Often she is the key component in setting events into motion – willing the direction they will take. I found her character surprising and intriguing. Attributing her survival of the waterless flood to dumb luck seems a bit disingenuous. Ren has the gift of taking the bad situations that happen to her and turning them. Her seeming innocence and fragility may very well be her survival tool, like the bio-engineered kudzu-moth caterpillars Toby finds in her garden: “In one of those jokey moves so common in the first years of gene-splicing, their designer gave them a baby face at the front end, with big eyes and a happy smile, which makes them remarkably difficult to kill.”
Telling a story from multiple perspectives isn’t new. Faulkner did it, as did others. But seldom has it been accomplished so thoroughly and completely as in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The reader is only allowed to know as much, or as little as each of the narrators. And the narrators have only their own, narrow perspective on any and all incidents. So it is the readers who discover and make connections that no one character, alone, has the ability to do. That is in a large part what makes these novels so enjoyable. To this, Atwood has added yet another layer. The God’s Gardeners are a religion and as such they have both sermons and hymns. Both are included as part of The Year of the Flood. The sermons are given by Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners. They provide insight, as well as comfort. (They also provide the chapter divisions and titles). Atwood strikes just the right tone, sometimes profound and sometimes ridiculous. They lend the religion authenticity. Later in the book they allow us a window into what goes on in the Edencliff Rooftop Garden (home of the God’s Gardeners), even after the flood. Even after our narrators are no longer there.
I was very happy to learn that Margaret Atwood is not finished with this world she has created. In a recent interview with the L.A. Times she stated that should she live long enough, there will be another book. (It’s not an idle concern by the way… just ask anyone who has invested the better part of the last two decades reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series). The implication is that it will explore the same time period as the first two novels, this time from the perspective of the group that forms the more bio-terrorist (though that may be too severe) arm of the God’s Gardeners: Mad Adam. Many of the members of Mad Adam ended up in Crake’s lab working on his Paradice Project, which provides the tie-in to Oryx and Crake. Apparently there is more to this fascinating story, and I am glad to have another reason to wish Margaret Atwood many, many years of good health. As Adam One would say, let us put light around her.
Book vs. Audio: I first listened to The Year of the Flood as a download from Audibles.com, and I highly recommend it. I am told there is both a UK and a U.S. version – mine was the U.S. version which is read by three distinct readers. There are two women (for Toby & Ren) and a man who reads Adam One’s sermons – all of whom do a fabulous job. The only sour note is the hymns. They are performed with music, and the production is poor. At times it was difficult to understand the lyrics, and to be completely honest I came to dread them. But overall, the main readings were so well done that I was happy that this was my first experience of the novel and highly recommend it. Afterwards, I bought the hardcover for a more careful reading.
The Year of the Flood is the companion novel and, at least in a small part, the sequel to Oryx and Crake. I don’t think this has been explained very well by the media. Atwood manages to intertwine the two stories so perfectly that it seems impossible that they were written separately. I encourage anyone who intends to read the one, to read both. And while it is true that the order they can be read in is somewhat interchangeable, I recommend reading Oryx and Crake first. The books share the same ending, but that ending is taken a little bit farther in The Year of the Flood.