The Year of the Flood – Book Review

This was not an ordinary pandemic: it wouldn’t be contained after a few hundred thousand deaths, then obliterated with biotools and bleach. This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners so often had warned about. It had all the signs: it traveled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs of terror and butchery. The lights were going out everywhere, and now the news was fading away; systems were failing as their keepers died. It spelled total breakdown which was why she’d needed the rifle. Rifles had been illegal for years, but laws were no longer a factor. – from The Year of the Flood, page 18 of the ARC –

The year is far in the future, a time when animals are becoming extinct at a rate faster than people can document, and the level of pollution requires individuals to don nose cones in order to go outside. The government is horribly corrupt – creating weird animals like liobams (part lamb, part lion) and embedding diseases into vitamin supplements. Criminals are either executed or sent to serve months “playing” Painball, a deadly form of today’s paintball.

Welcome to Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopian novel which serves as a prequel to her previous work Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood takes place roughly during the same time period as Oryx and Crake, but jumps back and forth from the post-pandemic months and the years leading up to the disaster. Jimmy (Snowman) makes a reappearance in The Year of the Flood, but the main characters are two women – Toby and Ren. The novel is narrated first in Toby’s voice then in Ren’s, alternating chapters to provide significant background on not only the state of the world, but each woman’s personal story as well.

The heroes of the novel are members of a (mostly) pacifist, eco-friendly group called the Gardeners. Headed up by a Christ-like man called Adam One, the Gardeners rescue people off the streets (and from morally reprehensible lives), prohibit meat eating of any kind, document the animals being lost to extinction, and work underground to gain information about the various corrupt practices of the government. Both Toby and Ren become members of the Gardeners – Toby as a healer and eventually one of the Eves (female members who take on a leadership role in the group), and Ren who joins the group as a child.

Nobody does dystopian literature better than Atwood – and in The Year of the Flood she provides complex female characters who are faced with futuristic horrors which involve women as sexual tools for men, plenty of violence, and lots of cynicism. There is also Atwood’s signature sense of humor embedded in the story which is often graphic while exploring serious subjects such as pandemics, government corruption, and loss of our natural resources.

I love Margaret Atwood’s writing. I am always astonished by the brilliance of her prose and her ability to tell an engrossing story. But The Year of the Flood is not without its faults. I could have lived without the insertion of Adam One’s sermons and song lyrics from the Gardener’s “hymn” book. I also felt the ending was rather abrupt and left the reader wondering what the future held for the characters (in this way, it was a lot like Oryx and Crake).In some ways, I felt Atwood wrote the ending to connect the novel to Oryx and Crake – it felt a bit contrived.

Despite its faults, The Year of the Flood will appeal to readers who enjoy an engaging dystopian tale and who have read and liked Atwood’s previous work. I would be interested to see if Atwood is planning a third book in the series…and if so, where she might take her characters next.

FTC Disclosure: I received this Advance Readers Edition from the publisher for review.

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    • Kathy on January 10, 2010 at 09:54

    I’ve got this book, but my son insists I should read Oryx and Crake first so I haven’t read it yet. Thanks for your review.

    • EL Fay on January 10, 2010 at 11:48

    I loved Oryx and Crake but I was bothered by how shallow Oryx’s character was compared to the two main male characters (Snowman and Crake). It’s great that this novel centers on women.

    I’ve also been considering The Handmaid’s Tale. I always thought it sounded too over-the-top but I guess many dystopian novels are.

    I guess the organic movement never gained much momentum in the Oryx/Flood universe.

    • Gavin on January 10, 2010 at 13:24

    Wendy – A third novel? I hadn’t thought of that. It would be very interesting to see what point of view Atwood chose to tell it from. I did enjoy the sermons and the hymns, they felt rather playful to me. Thanks for this great review.

    • Nicola on January 10, 2010 at 16:30

    I felt pretty much the same way and gave a similar rating. Though I didn’t find Adam One Christ-like at all! I found the religion very Old Testament. I also didn’t enjoy the sermons and especially the hymns but I read them carefully to figure out the religion.

    I had never thought of a third book! Interesting concept! Perhaps one that picks up from where these left off and goes forward.

    • Staci on January 10, 2010 at 17:18

    I read The Hand Maid’s Tale and that is enough Atwood for me 🙂 I enjoyed reading your thoughts on her latest book though.

    • Teddy on January 10, 2010 at 18:18

    I love Atwood! I rushed out and bought this book in September and still haven’t gotten to it. LOL!

    • Wendy on January 12, 2010 at 09:59

    Kathy: I don’t think it matters what order you read the books…they could actually “stand alone” …

    El Fay: I actually LOVED the Handmaid’s Tale – it is one of my favorite Atwood novels. I liked that this one had women playing central roles – Atwood does female characters great.

    Gavin: You’re welcome – oh I think I could see her writing a third novel which would start where this one ended…but we’ll see!

    Nicola: It is always so interesting to see how different readers interpret characters! I agree that IF there were a 3rd novel, it would be a natural choice to have it pick up where this one left off.

    Staci: Sorry you didn’t enjoy the Handmaid’s Tale 🙂 BUT, that said, Atwood does not just write dystopian stuff…and you might give another of her novels a try at some point.

    Teddy: *laughs* Yes, I love her too! Will be interested to read your review of this one sometime.

    • Jenners on January 12, 2010 at 19:11

    I haven’t read any of Atwood’s book since “The Handmaid’s Tale” but this review is making me rethink that.

    • Wendy on January 27, 2010 at 11:15

    Jenners: I loved The Handmaid’s Tale…I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on this one if you get to it.

    • chuff on February 14, 2010 at 09:30

    Apparently this is the second of a trilogy. For someone who insists that she is not writing science fiction Margaret Atwood uses all of the standard structures of the genre, including the omnipresent trilogy. In the back of the Vintage Canada paperback edition of “Oryx and Crake” is a page saying “Don’t miss the second book of the MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD.”

    Dystopian literature is by definition unrelentingly grim. It’s probably best to put an uplifting kernel of hope and salvation, a bit of Hollywood ending, if you really want to keep the majority of people coming back for more. Just look at the Book of Revelations. However if you don’t mind good songs that start out kind of slow and then fizzle out altogether, try Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series.

    • Wendy on February 15, 2010 at 10:55

    Chuff: My copy said nothing about this being the second in a trilogy…but it makes total sense that it would be. I am not a huge fan of science fiction or dystopian literature, but I do think Atwood does these genres very well. Thanks for weighing in!

  1. Wendy, I literally finished “The Year of the Flood” only minutes ago. I’m teaching it in a college English class starting next week. I took on this class not too long ago, and I always like to use books I’ve never taught before; it keeps me on my toes. When I couldn’t find a great book that I hadn’t taught already, I took a chance and settled on “The Year of the Flood” before I’d finished reading it.

    I’d taught “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to great results–the students loved it–but now there are Cliff’s Notes for it. I want to use books where the students get no help. They just have to read it. Atwood is such a fabulous writer, I felt I wouldn’t be gambling too badly.

    So I just finished it, and I’m in awe. The end is one of those that makes you think there’s more on the next page, but there’s nothing on the next page. So you again read the ending and nod and wonder.

    Thus I came to the Internet and looked for who wrote about the book, and, lo and behold, you were at the top. This is such a difficult book to explain, and yet you did it brilliantly. I had not read “Oryx and Crake” because when I started that one, it seemed such a downer. This one, despite it opening when the flood had come–whatever kind of flood it was–I was fascinated by watching Toby survive, and then going back in time a few decades before the flood. You follow the story with Toby as she joins God’s Gardeners to hide out from her daily rapist, and there we also meet one of the teenagers in the cult, Ren, who later leaves and becomes a sex worker at SeksMart.

    What’s interesting is we follow Toby in third person and Ren in first person. Normally, such POV shift would drive me nuts, but I didn’t even notice it until I was nearly done with the book.

    I happen to write notes in my books as I read, and at times I was writing the word “funny” in the margins often. Atwood’s view of our countries (U.S. and Canada) is dryly wicked often. For example, she mentions how a foreign corporation east of Europe kidnapped a top executive from an American corporation, and, “The Corps over there were always trying to poach on our Corps — their undercover thugs were even more cut-throat than ours, and they had an advantage because they were better at languages and could pretend to be immigrants. We couldn’t do that to them because why would we immigrate there?”

    I love all the names in the book. Atwood has as much fun naming things as does J.K. Rowling. Witness the companies HelthWyzer and CryoJeenyus, and the AnooYou Spa. There are the gene-spliced new creatures, such as the rakunks and liobams, that corporations have created. The big company that seems to run everything is is CorpSeCorps, which has the word “corpse” in it.

    I’m just dashing this off, realizing that teaching this book is going to big a huge but fun challenge. With so many ideas in it, I can already picture some of my students, most of whom are not readers, feeling as if they’re Columbus, finding a new land.

    I’ll send you a note if you’re interested in how the students reacted to it. I couldn’t finish Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” because it was too damn unrelenting and bleak. While this is bleak, there are absolutely lyrical passages.

    I agree with you, Wendy: the Adam One passages and the hymns are not gripping, and I soon skimmed the hymns, but Adam One, the leader, grew on me. I’m not a fan of cults, yet as I’m watching the craziness of all the oil in the gulf and the fact that we as American’s burn up a third of the world’s oil and drive monster cars still as if it’s all endless, this book makes sense.

    • Wendy on June 29, 2010 at 06:16

    Hi Chris! It’s great to hear from you 🙂 I was just the other day sorting my books and taking my autographed books and putting them on their own shelf – so of course I picked up your short story collections and wondered what you were up to these days. Now I know! I think this book would be a blast to teach – and yes, it is SO relevant to what is happening right now in our world. I’d love to hear how your students react to the book 🙂 You know, I loved The Road – bleak as it was…but there is nothing like Atwood’s brilliance (she is one of my all time favorite authors – even when I don’t LOVE a book by her, I always am in awe of her insight and ability to turn a sentence and create a story). I’ll tell you – another of her books that would be good teaching material is The Robber Bride – amazing book!

  2. Great to hear from you, Wendy, and I’ll definitely look into “The Robber Bride.” I don’t think I have that one on my to-read shelf. I’m honored my books have a warm spot on your shelf, and I’m on my fifth and perhaps last draft of a new novel called LOVE AT ABSOLUTE ZERO, which is about a 35-year-old physicist who, in gaining tenure, decides to find a wife using the Scientific Method. It doesn’t work. I’m playing with ways his research into what happens to matter near Absolute Zero comes to swirl with his discoveries of love. This is where I need the brilliance of Margaret Atwood to guide me.

    • Wendy on July 4, 2010 at 17:37

    Chris: I am SO excited you are working on another novel 🙂 You can’t find a better guide than Atwood!! And DEFINITELY read The Robber Bride…it is such an amazing and brilliant book…really!

    • Sarah on December 4, 2011 at 17:33

    Corporations not the government created the liobams. The CorpsiCorp corporation enforces laws.

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