I feel like I’m at some close-knit meeting; sitting in a circle where people nervously avoid eye contact and speak in hushed tones. “This is my first Atwood”, I say, and everyone turns sympathetically towards me, nodding. Knowing that I’ve only just started on my way to becoming the Canadian I claim to be.
This is my first Atwood.
It was my first Atwood, and what a story it was. The Year of the Flood is, as I found out mid-way through, book two in the “MaddAddam Trilogy”. I hurriedly researched the first book, Oryx and Crake, and was relieved to see a series of assurances that these books don’t have to be read in order.
The Year of the Flood follows two women, Ren and Toby. Ren is a dancer from a sex club and Toby is the manager of a luxurious spa. It’s not clear what year this story takes place, but it seems to be not too far off in the future. It’s understood from the beginning of the novel that both women are trapped where they are and taking life day by day, rationing their supplies, hoping there are others alive. They both casually refer to “the waterless flood” as the cause of the societal downfall that has somehow spared all the animals, insects and plants outside. The story is traded off from one narrative to the other as Toby and Ren both look back on their adolescence, coming of age and how they have found themselves to be in their current predicament. Though not close friends, we find out that they know each other as they were both members of the God’s Gardeners, a vegan, quasi-religious group that believes their salvation lies in living off the land and honouring God’s creatures.
Atwood has written verse, meant to be sung, that the God’s Gardeners sing for each “Saint’s Day”. There is one every day of the year, honouring a different famous person or animal that has furthered humanity according to the beliefs of the Gardeners. Every few chapters one of these songs will be printed, followed by the transcription of a speech by the founder of the Gardeners, Adam One. This style of storytelling is just one of the many fascinating aspects that I loved in this novel.
There is so much I could tell you about this fantastical, spine tinglingly correct world that Atwood has created, but there is no way I could do it justice. It is believable, lucid and extremely creative. Atwood writes post-apocalyptic like no YA author can. She draws on our history and our literature to construct this world and makes the characters so believable, so complex that they help to define it seamlessly. This book really caught me off guard. The back paragraph does not do it justice, whatsoever. My brother gave me this book over a year ago for my birthday and I’m not sure whether I would have even read it if it hadn’t been on the longlist. I have heard things about Atwood from those that are idiots don’t read her work saying that she writes these über-futuristic novels that aren’t accessible and preach feminism. Even if that were the case, I would say it doesn’t matter, but that’s not the case at all. This novel is very accessible and there is no lengthy feminist prose at all.
This is a great segue to discuss the relationships in the book. I realized part way through that there is no real romantic relationship in this book. No relationship between a man and a woman that the reader is waiting to develop, mature or come together. It is so utterly refreshing. Yes, there are romantic relationships alluded to in stories that Ren tells, but I love that this book wasn’t defined by two characters ultimately ending up together or apart. The most powerful relationship in this book is the bond that Ren has with her friend Amanda. From the way the friendship is described, to the way that I felt about the two girls finding each other in Atwood’s broken world, it was more interesting and believable than any romantic relationship between a man and a woman that I’ve read about as of late. I hoped throughout the book that they would find each other because in each person lay something that made the other whole, though not ever said that explicitly.
One of the things I found really interesting in this novel was the chronicling of the start of a new religion. It seemed totally logical, albeit it not exactly my cup of tea, for a group to get together and try to live in a new way when their world seemed threatened. Adam One, their leader, was a normal human, but to see him idolized as a symbol of salvation made total sense during the book. It made me think a lot about how storytelling has a heavy hand in the defining of our history and how strong men and women can be turned into religious icons that shape a cultural group. Really fascinating stuff.
Once the reminiscing starts to approach the recent days in both Toby and Ren’s lives, things really start to happen and that’s when this story really takes off. This novel turns into a full-on thriller as the food supplies dwindle and outside factors start to threaten the lives of our heroines who seemed to be oddly safe, trapped as they were. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I shouldn’t go into detail, but I will say that I was on the edge of my seat during the final pages. This novel has totally been my gateway drug into the futuristic underworld of Atwood and I’m so excited for what’s in store.