The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
I’ve read a few Margaret Atwood books before. I quite liked The Handmaid’s Tale, but it wasn’t as good as I was hoping. I didn’t like The Blind Assassin as much as Handmaid’s Tale. I absolutely loved Oryx & Crake. And now, I loved The Year of the Flood.
The plot is told from the point of view of two characters, Toby and Ren, through two time periods. Both Toby and Ren are members of what is basically a religious-environmentalist cult, called The Gardeners. The Gardeners believe that a “waterless flood” is coming that will wash all the sinful folk of the world away, and the story is split between the time before the eponymous year of the flood, and the time after it. The bulk of the story is set before the flood, but it’s not strictly linear, as most chapters are framed by Toby or Ren after the flood, before heading back to their time with The Gardeners before the flood, and their survival immediately after it.
If I’d done any research I’d have read this book ages ago. I didn’t realise beforehand that it’s quasi-sequel to Oryx & Crake. I was obviously a little bit delighted when I realised this (I say “when I realised this”, I mean “when the book explicitly referred to two characters as ‘Oryx and Crake’ and I realised I’d been a bit of a moron”).
I say quasi-sequel, because the events of The Year of the Flood don’t take place after Oryx & Crake, but instead take place at the same time. The post-apocalyptic land that Toby is living in at the opening of the book is the same one The Snowman is living in at the opening of Oryx & Crake, and the build-up to the flood takes place at the same time as Jimmy and Glenn’s story in Oryx & Crake.
That means that a lot of the strengths of Oryx & Crake are strengths here. The dystopian, science-without-limits near-future is extremely well-realised and pretty horrifying. Companies keep their employees in highly defended walled compounds, and everywhere outside of these are slums, where the law is kept by all-powerful private security firms. Lab-created “genetic splices” like Wolvogs, Pigoons and Rakunks have been created in labs to improve upon traditional animals. These are vaguely terrifying in different ways, although the idea of a Liobam (a genetic splice of a lion and a lamb) does sound fairly damn adorable. I want one as a pet.
Obviously, as this is Margaret Atwood, it’s beautifully written, and easily blends realistic characters with some great science fiction concepts (although she refers to them as speculative fiction, not science fiction, which is a fair tag. I’ll keep calling it sci-fi though). One of the great strengths of the sci-fi elements is that they don’t need a huge amount of description. You can generally just instinctively figure them out, which keeps the book going at a pretty good pace. A lot of the concepts were introduced in Oryx & Crake, but it’s still quite rare for a writer not to feel the need to explain these concepts again in a sequel. I found the elements that I wasn’t familiar with in advance easy to grasp.
I guess it’s possible that some of these might have been explained in Oryx & Crake, and I had just forgotten them. I read that about four or five years ago and didn’t have any problem with any of the sci-fi elements, which should demonstrate how strong and intuitive these elements are.
As strong as the world as a whole is, the characters are better. It’s not even so much the strength of individual characters as the depth of them. Toby and Ren aren’t outstanding leads (although they are definitely more than good enough), but there’s so many strong supporting characters that the cast is a real strength.
Toby and Ren are both interesting, positive and likeable characters that make you want to root for them. As befits their positions as (largely) a teacher and a student, Toby is more sceptical and stoic in comparison to Ren’s more naive and sometimes optimistic outlook. Both have strong motivations for being who they are and reasons for the choices that they make, which is nice, because there’s few things I find more annoying in a book than characters making decisions that don’t seem to make sense based on their established character.
Ren and Toby also have plenty of friends (and a few enemies) to make up a great supporting cast. Some of them, particularly Amanda and Zeb, get pretty well fleshed out to the extent that they a full, nuanced characters in their own right, while others, like some of the Adams and Eves (the leaders of the Gardeners) and some of Ren’s friends are little more than brief sketches. There is a whole swathe of characters who lie somewhere in between those two descriptions as well.
Similarly to the sci-fi concepts I talked about earlier, even the characters that don’t get much in the way of development still like real, fully developed people. To pick an example, there’s a boy called Oates, who’s the younger brother of a friend of Ren’s (although she doesn’t particularly like that friend). Even at Oates’ position a couple of spots removed from where you’d expect a fully-blown character, it feels like he is one, who grows and changes as the book progresses.
I did really enjoy the stylistic choice that Atwood makes to differentiate between the sections from the two main points of view from Toby and Ren: Toby’s sections are written in third person, while Ren’s are in the first person, which works really well. It gives Toby’s sections a more detached feeling, which fits in with her cooler, calmer personality. On the other hand, Ren’s sections feel instantly more immediate and impetuous, more worried about what’s happening right now than the long-term implications, which is nicely reflective of her character and her youth.
It’s not rare for the style of writing in a novel will be reflective of the personality of the main character, but I can’t really think of any books told from multiple perspectives which do such a good a job of displaying the personality of multiple characters through different writing styles.
The characters and writing are generally so strong that there’s only one character that I have any complaint about: Adam One (the leader of the Gardeners), who never really got as much development as I felt he deserved. He actually serves as a third POV character, with each chapter opening with a speech. Toby’s relationships with him flesh him out beyond this, such that it positions him as an interesting combination of religious zealot and grounded realist. My complaint isn’t that he’s not a good character: it’s that he’s a good character who I didn’t get to see enough of.
My only other complaint of the book as a whole is that the ending was pretty weak. I feel a bit odd criticising it, as the ending to this feeds into the ending of Oryx & Crake (which had an ambiguous, semi-cliffhanger ending) and it makes that ending significantly stronger. But the ending for The Year of the Flood as a self-contained book in itself just isn’t great, and certainly isn’t as strong as what’s gone before.
Atwood is currently writing a further quasi-sequel called MaddAddam, which is due for release this year. I’m hopeful that both the ending and the character of Adam One might be further fleshed out. Even if they aren’t, I’m really not too bothered – The Year of the Flood is currently my favourite book of 2013, and the promise of more of the same before the year is out can only be a good thing.
I’ve found it difficult to avoid comparisons to Oryx & Crake in this review (you might have noticed!), and I think that says everything it needs to: The Year of the Flood is an excellent book, but I don’t think it would work quite as well as a standalone book. It’d still be good, but I’m not sure it would be excellent. I’d definitely recommend it, but I’d definitely recommend reading Oryx & Crake first. But then I’d recommend reading Oryx & Crake anyway. So there you go: two book recommendations for the price of one!
Read if you like: Oryx & Crake (obviously), any sort of dystopian novel, good characters, strong stories and good writing. Basically, if you like good books and something vaguely definable as science-fiction.
Don’t read if you like: Like my last review, I’m struggling to think who wouldn’t like this. I guess if you are unable to cope with any books not set within the current day real world you might struggle with this one.
Next up: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (which I’ve already finished)