At the beginning of the year, I created the Slanted Spines Book List which designated a book for each month! The reading for August is The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and this is my book review! It contains minimal spoilers, and I will denote when they appear.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood is a speculative fiction novel which follows two women, Toby and Ren, as they navigate the pitfalls of their dystopian society and survive a post-apocalyptic landscape.
This book is the second installment in the Maddadam trilogy; however, while it is set in the same universe as the first book, Oryx & Crake, it can function as a standalone because it centers on different characters. Personally, I have not read the first book, but while I’m sure that there were many allusions to it within the book (as Oryx and Crake are both characters who appear near the end), I found it comprehensible on its own.
Having been orphaned as a young woman, Toby turns to the streets. She attempts to make her own way, but after an unfortunate series of occurrences, Toby finds herself joining the Gardeners unexpectedly, and a majority of this novel covers her time with the group. On the other hand, Ren’s mother joins the Gardeners while Ren is only a toddler, and so Ren’s character grows up among the group, heavily conditioned by their ways.
This book discusses at length the spiritual group called the Gardeners, which rejects its larger society and exists clandestine and rather cult-like as its own. They follow the word of God and prioritize environmental conservation, and they have a rather Buddhist-Christian outlook. The Gardeners accept anyone who wishes to join their group, and as they are located in the slums of their city, many people turn to them when they have nowhere else to go. The Gardeners maintain gardens, teach one another, and adhere to a certain set of guidelines. Adam One, their leader, is somewhat like a pastor, and his lectures appear periodically throughout the book, each followed by a Gardener hymn. Other leaders within the group are given the title “Adam” or “Eve,” and Toby herself becomes Eve Six. Within this book, time is measured according to the Gardener’s existence, and so “Year One” is the first year that the Gardeners were created, and each day is assigned a specific saint or event, and so rather than something like “April 15,” each day has a name like “The Feast of Serpent Wisdom” or “Pollination Day.”
But the Gardeners prophesize the end of man, similar to the story of Noah and his ark, and so when a “waterless flood” plagues society and wipes out almost all of their city, Toby and Ren must rely on the survival skills which they learned from the Gardeners.
I should note that if you are particularly triggered by suicide, sexual assault, or cannibalism/animal consumption, there are parts of this book that may cause a reaction. These are not heavily prevalent in this book, but near the end of the book, there is some rather graphic sexual assault. Just thought I’d give a heads up!
Even if you haven’t read Margaret Atwood’s books, you’ve probably heard about her. She’s authored several other novels and collections, including The Handmaid’s Tale (which was adapted into a popular TV show by Netflix), The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin. So, as one would imagine, she’s quite experienced in the craft of writing.
Without exception, the writing in The Year of the Flood is skillful and professional. She drops the reader in the middle of this society, and so rather than waste any exposition building the world, she explains it as the novel goes, sometimes offering background information, and sometimes forcing the reader to rely on context clues. (Hint: a “violet biolet” is a toilet!)
As far as speculative fiction goes, I think she did an excellent job framing the world and unfolding its events. With time leaps back and forth, the book engaged me as I eagerly kept reading to discover what was to happen.
Probably the weakest aspect of the book was, in my opinion, the character Ren, which didn’t seem to be a problem until the latter half.
The two protagonists of this book juxtapose one another: Toby is the older, stronger woman, while Ren is the younger, weaker woman. They are both rather likable and fully fleshed out until a certain point, at which Ren falls into her trope and Toby seems apparently Atwood’s favored character. “Ren was overly pliable,” Atwood writes, “She risked being always under somebody’s thumb” (page 176).
For some reason, Atwood wrote Toby’s sections in third person while she wrote Ren’s sections in first person. I’ve pondered about this decision for a while—why would she do this? Ultimately, I hypothesize two likely reasons: the first, to better differentiate their stories, because while they’re both different people, they exist within the same close-knit group; the second, is that Ren is more emotional while Toby is more logical, so perhaps the narrator’s point of view further emphasized this, as first person can be more feeling-based while third person feels more objective.
So, returning to the character development—for most of the book, Ren is a child, and so it makes sense that she’s unaware of a lot of things. As a pre-teen, she becomes close friends with a free spirit named Amanda whom she adopts into the Gardeners. Ren somewhat idolizes Amanda, who is spunky, independent, and knows how to get what she wants.
**Spoilers ahead** **Skip to “The Plot” section!**
When the “waterless flood” hits, incidentally Ren is trapped in a room locked from the outside. She had been quarantining, and after all her co-workers die, she isn’t able to escape; fortunately, she contacts Amanda, who eventually breaks her out. From here on, Ren is annoyingly incapable; she is scared, weak, and helpless. She relies on Amanda until Amanda is brutally enslaved to a small group of criminal male survivors, and Ren is able to break away and find Toby, who becomes her “Amanda replacement.” Toby must take care of Ren, who begins to irritate Toby with her added burden.
Look, I understand that the end times are horrifying. But Ren grew up with the Gardeners, who were a group of people literally training for survival. Practically everything that Toby is capable of, is due to what she learned with the Gardeners as they sustained themselves and prepared for the end times. Yes, Ren is much younger, but I don’t like how Atwood began characterizing her as the damsel in distress. She’s fixated on Amanda and Jimmy like nothing else, and her personality collapses into a thin strand of pathetic inability.
Toby, on the other hand, was mostly interesting to me for her resilience. She has very little personality, but that’s because she’s adopted a survivor’s mentality in which she doesn’t allow herself to fully dwell with her emotions. After enduring the traumatic deaths of her parents, struggling to survive on the streets, repeated sexual assault from her boss, she exists within the Gardeners as the strict, no-nonsense adult, and is often called “the Dry Witch” from Ren’s perspective—and then the pandemic happens, and she becomes even harder. At Year Twenty-Five, Toby muses, “Yet another whole new me, fresh as a snake. How many would that add up to, by now?” (Page 237).
Atwood often makes a point that Toby is not sexually attractive to men, to the point where she’s practically “genderless” to others, an infeasible prospect for a mate. “I’m the wrong body type, she thought. Too muscular. No doubt he likes the jiggle” (page 244). When she does receive acknowledgement of her femininity, she feels a little excitement, such as when Zeb says he bets she used to be a babe prior to joining the Gardeners, and Atwood writes, “She was pleased: she hadn’t had a gender-weighted compliment for some time” (page 185).
There was a tendency for the characters to meet up at extremely coincidental times—such as how several Gardeners survive the pandemic and regroup in the post-apocalyptic city. However, I did not have an issue with the believability of this because the Gardeners were trained to survive, so it makes sense to me that they would be skilled enough to make it through. Moreover, the Gardeners did not ingest “prcoessed” food and relied on their own garden, and so their bodies may have been healthier and better equipped to handle a plague, compared to the masses who ingested so many chemicals, toxins, and random human and animal parts such as the SecretBurger which was known to contain finger nails and rat tails. The one person who continuously showed up who I thought shouldn’t have was Blanco—how the heck did that jerk face keep enduring?
The pacing was slow to medium, and I think the plot was unpacked in a really skillful way. I liked that this book fixated on the Gardeners and these two characters, rather than trying to explain everything about the world. (I imagine that’s what Oryx & Crake was for.)
When I found out that the “waterless flood” was a pandemic, I became excited to read about something similar to our COVID-19 situation; however, let me warn you that the actual pandemic aspect of this novel is quite short-lived, and this deals a lot less with the “sick period” and more with the before- and aftermath of the plague event.
The ending was just plain weird to me. And it wasn’t even much of an ending. I suppose it’s also the part of the book which connects most to Oryx & Crake, but it left off on such a bizarre, bleak note.
There is a third book in the series, but it has rather poor ratings and I almost doubt if it will shed much light on the way this book ended.
Well-written, interesting plot, decent characters—this is a good book. It’s certainly not a book for everyone, but it is a good book.
The manner in which Atwood describes the societies within this book feels like somewhat like she is making a commentary on our real life society. For example, there are “AnooYoo” facilities which advertise that they can sell you “a new you.” Women frequently visit these businesses for routine beauty fixes, and it reads like a rather thinly veiled allusion to actual society’s preoccupation with making women feel that they are ugly and must change themselves to be beautiful. Even the spelling alone—“AnooYoo” and “SeksMarket”—feels like Atwood is commenting on how corporations simplify language for their brands. (Kwik Mart, anyone?)
Additionally, the people living in the slums are so desperate for food that they will eat anything, even if a fast food chain advertises that the substance within their burgers is a “secret”: “The secret of SecretBurgers was that no one knew what sort of animal protein was actually in them… SecretBurgers! Because Everyone Loves a Secret!… One used to say, hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience” (page 33). Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon to find a “swatch of cat fur” or “a fragment of mouse tail” in the burgers (page 33). Atwood emphasizes how businesses do whatever they can to cut costs and increase profits, which often means that dead bodies are salvaged by corporations to become food. The dystopian society in this book surely seems like an extreme version of the world we live in.
As for the adverse publicity, they could squelch it at source, since the media Corps controlled what was news and what wasn’t. And the Internet was such a jumble of false and true factoids that no one believed what was on it any more, or else they believed all of it, which amounted to the same thing.Page 293
Atwood has been writing dystopian societies since the 1960’s (and maybe even before that), so she is familiar with the ways in which a society can go wrong. The Year of the Flood was published in 2009, and so interestingly, it’s one of her more recent depictions of a troubling world. In some of the Goodreads reviews about this book, I noticed a few readers were exhausted with her “heavy-handed” commentary, yet I feel that if a person does not want to read such commentary, they oughtn’t pick up a book themed as speculative fiction. Personally, I enjoy reading others’ world views, and even if it is a fictionalized world and not at all representative of their beliefs, it is an author’s imagined story and thus there is prone to be remarks about society. Quite frankly, if you don’t want to read Atwood’s perspective, then don’t pick up any of her books.
The final aspect of this book I’d like to mention is the Gardeners’ philosophy. It is not a perfect group, yet it is still the most definitively “good” group in the entire novel. Despite that both Toby and Ren are reluctant to be a part of the Gardeners—both women are somewhat forced into the group and dislike certain aspects of it, sometimes feeling disconnected to the group—they frequently return to the Gardeners’ teachings for comfort or reassurance in times of doubt. “Adam One says” or “The Gardeners used to say” are both frequent phrases in both Toby and Ren’s perspectives.
The stretch of time after that was very dark. I wondered what I was doing on the Earth: no one would care much if I wasn’t on it any more. Maybe I should cast away what Adam One called my husk and transform into a vulture or a worm. But then I remembered how the Gardeners used to say, Ren, your life is a precious gift, and where there is a gift there is a Giver, and when you’ve been given a gift you should always say thank you. So that was some help.Page 227
Ultimately, the rag-tag group of Gardeners is a found family. The group forms bonds and shares memories, and their loving relationship keeps them together despite everything that happens.
Although disturbing, this book is quite fascinating and insightful. Even if you don’t typically enjoy science fiction, I think that you may enjoy this book armored with the insight I have provided you in this book review. I recommend The Year of the Flood for those who enjoy Margaret Atwood’s books, speculative fiction, books about the female experience, survival stories, and found families within a dystopian society. I enjoyed this book!
Thanks for reading my review! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.
For more book reviews by Slanted Spines, visit this page!
The Slanted Spines September book is Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman!