Review: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

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The Year of the Flood (2009) by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood is the second book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and follows the same timeline as that of Snowman/Jimmy’s story in Oryx & Crake. This instalment introduces us in-depth to the journeys of Toby and Ren, both members part of the God’s Gardeners eco-cult mentioned in Oryx & Crake. Ren is taken to the cult as a child by her mother, who is running away from a Compound with a man, Zeb, she’s having an affair with. Ren grows up in the cult, then in her teen years her mother leaves and returns to the Compound, taking Ren with her. Ren attends high school in the Compound, and meets and falls in love with Jimmy, who appears, as well as Crake, at various intersections through the story. There are a lot of understated crossovers between this book and the first one, and some are so subtle that if you blink and you’ll miss them.
Toby’s story has a stronger focus and arc than Ren’s. While she’s in college her parents fall victim to one of the Corporation’s deadly scams and she must disappear quickly, leaving behind her past life and youthful optimism. She scrapes a living in various ways, from selling her eggs, which leaves her infertile after an infection, to working at Secret Burgers, a low-end fast food chain that is known for putting secret (i.e. anything) ingredients into their burgers. It is while she’s working at Secret Burgers that she becomes the plaything of mid-level manager and violent wannabe mob-boss Blanco, and Toby knows that she can only endure his abusive attentions for so long before she will perish. It is during this distressing episode that Toby is rescued from Secret Burgers by the God’s Gardeners, led by the calm, magnetic figure of Adam One. Toby stays with the Gardeners for many years, becoming apprenticed to old Pilar, the Gardener in charge of apiaries and mushrooms, and eventually works her way up the Gardener ranks.

Interspersed throughout The Year of the Flood are sermons given by Adam One to the Gardeners on particular Saint and Feast days, each one capturing the general mood of Toby or Ren’s present or past as they then recall it in the following chapter. It is also a clever device to keep the timelines of each character, and the timeline of the downfall of humanity, in order. As the work is centred on the Gardeners and their lives and culture, the Saint and Feast days are celebrated yearly, so when Ren or Toby recall something it is linked to a significant day, and often there are crossovers in their memories, with Toby as a teacher and Ren as a child living with the Gardeners. These sections also give an insight into the philosophy, history and purpose of the Gardeners, which becomes more significant in the third book in the trilogy, MaddAddam.

As in Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood is heavy on environmentalism, human rights abuses, invasions of the body, and the exploitation of the vulnerable for profit – Atwood’s trademarks in futuristic fiction. This instalment of the story, however, is more hopeful than Oryx & Crake; it presents a bigger, more human side to the world that Atwood has created, and isn’t centred around the morose inner monologue and life-regrets of Snowman/Jimmy. Having the plot intertwine between two characters with very different origins, personalities and destinies deflects the obsessions and whininess that the character of Snowman/Jimmy inflicts on the reader throughout Oryx & Crake.

The Year of the Flood has a broader scope, fleshing out details of the world and future introduced in Oryx & Crake, and is an excellent continuation of the MaddAddam trilogy. Snowman/Jimmy’s life and world in the first instalment is very sheltered and he is quite a self-centred character, so The Year of the Flood fills in the details that Oryx & Crake doesn’t address, and as it is set in the same timeline but with different characters, there are details of Snowman/Jimmy’s life that are further revealed and explained; a welcome addition to the overall story.

Having now also read MaddAddam, the third instalment in the trilogy, I can say that The Year of the Flood is the most satisfying and well-written of the three works. However, it is definitely reading worth reading all of them; the story will make very little sense without all three!

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