Review: MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

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MaddAddam (2011) by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam is the third book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and follows on from the end of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, where Snowman/Jimmy, Toby and Ren’s stories all converge. This book is divided between the continuing story of those who survived the ‘waterless flood’, the custom-made disease that kills off most of humanity, and the backstory of Zeb, one of the Gardeners from The Year of the Flood. The story is again told from the point of view of Toby as she slowly finds the other Gardeners who survived, among them Zeb, whom Toby has had romantic feelings for since the last book.

This book is divided into chapters of the present, regarding the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of the survivors and the Crakers, and the past, generally Zeb’s past. As their romantic relationship unfolds and develops Zeb tells Toby his personal history; his publicly charismatic but privately abusive church minister father, his emotionally-absent, reality-denying mother, and his too-perfect brother; his escape from home as a young man, the harsh reality of living without a fixed identity, running from his vengeance-seeking father; and his eventual inclusion in the God’s Gardeners. This story includes glimpses of other previously-mentioned characters, and further expands the world established in Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Starting in The Year of the Flood and continuing in MaddAddam, Atwood uses Toby’s life and character arc to explore the constant juxtaposition between spirituality and pragmatism. When Toby first becomes one of God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood, she feels like a fraud, unable to accept the spiritual elements of the cult, but also taking comfort and guidance from them in a reluctant, guilty sort of way. Atwood uses Toby’s slow journey from traumatised, hard-hearted youth to bee-conversing, hallucinogenic-mushroom-taking middle-aged woman to explore the paths humans take to stay whole in body, mind and spirit. Toby wants to survive, but more than that, she wants to live, to love, and to believe. She begins her arc rejecting signs and omens as illogical, viewing spiritual journeys as a mess of chemical reactions in the brain with no real significance or meaning. But the mentorship of old Pilar and her mix of scientific and mystical practices compels Toby to realise that embracing the unseen is a fundamental aspect of being human that she can never completely discard. This transformation is mainly apparent in The Year of the Flood, but it is solidified in MaddAddam by Toby’s romance with Zeb, a man she wanted but never let herself want, just as she refuses to acknowledge or mention the jealousy she feels when she sees him talking to younger women. Toby begins the story by rejecting hope, love and spiritual guidance as illogical, but through the course of the books realises and slowly embraces their importance as a factor of being human.

Although this book again expands on the world and future established in Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, it feels direction-less. The histories and inner lives of established characters are explored in more depth, and again this is a welcome addition to the story, but from the beginning there doesn’t seem to be a clear endpoint for the plot. At first it seems that capturing the Painballers, players in an illegal kill-or-be-killed game, is the objective of the story, then it seems that it’s actually about Toby and Zeb’s romantic progression, then it seems that Zeb’s history is the chief purpose of the story. Different problems, arcs, journeys, disasters, proposals and discoveries crop up as the book progresses, and most are resolved by the end, but none really take centre stage as the main plot arc, and this made it difficult to focus through each chapter. It is absolutely worth reading this third instalment of the trilogy, but it is difficult to find it compelling, as the reader is attracted to completely different stories at different points.

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