Book reviews – ‘The Year of the Flood’ by Margaret Atwood
In advance of Margaret Atwood’s visit to Bristol on 9 September 2009, we asked two Bristol Festival of Ideas fans to review Margaret’s new book, The Year of the Flood‘ (published by Bloomsbury).
Please feel free to add your own thoughts about Margaret’s book in the comments section at the bottom of this page.
Review by Natalie Horne:
I finished this book asking ‘what next’. This was partly due to the slightly abrupt ending and my eagerness to keep following the plight of the rather motley collection of characters. But the inescapable ‘what next’ woven into the fabric of the book is about where we’re headed – as a planet, as a species and as fallible humans craving happiness.
The Year of the Flood spans a vast array of issues, and provokes the reader to question almost every looming threat facing us. But what makes it refreshing – and less depressing – is that at no point does it feel like a lecture. The richness of Atwood’s imagined future enables us to stay focused on the story, while playing with some very dark and very real themes. Gene-splicing, the penal system, prostitution, pollution, the beauty industry, identity, religion, superbugs, corporate corruption, state power – and so forth. It’s incredible that she pulls it off, really.
Ironically, it’s the ‘God’s Gardeners’, a Christian-environmental religion central to the story, that helps to evade this preaching element. It provides Atwood with a vehicle both to celebrate and be cynical. Through singsong excerpts from the oral hymnbook, plus the stories of our two protagonists, she takes noble ideas of harmony and acceptance and then looks realistically at our capacity as individuals to live them.
This book is a testament to Atwood’s imagination – and some of her creations really stick with you. Take the Painball for example; a facility for condemned prisoners that delivers barbaric, gladiatorial entertainment to the masses, turning society’s worst criminals into celebrities.
I would definitely recommend this book; whether or not you’ve read Oryx and Crake the book which preceded this. Atwood is painfully astute, unnerving and heartening.
Review by Sarah Williams:
The depiction of a world ravaged by plague, where a few survivors struggle for their daily existence is not a new idea for a novel. Mary Shelley’s novel, The Last Man, published in 1826, depicts a world decimated by plague and the idea has been used and adapted by writers of apocalyptic fiction ever since. Last year’s remake by the BBC of the popular 1970s series Survivors shows how the idea can still draw audiences.
But Atwood’s premise is nothing like as simple as Survivors. As in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a dystopian society set in a future where control has slipped into the wrong hands. The blurb on the back describes The Year of the Flood as "a visionary masterpiece". The book opens with Toby, surviving alone on a rooftop and we are introduced, via Toby’s memories of a populated past, to the Gardeners.
The Gardeners are a cult of vegan, eco Christians who worship God through nature. They sing hymns praising plants and animals, their saints include Dian Fossey and Rachel Carson and their elders are called Adams and Eves. The Gardeners recognise that this society has messed up the earth and, led by Adam One, they live their lives in preparation for what they call the ‘Waterless Flood’.
What they are protesting against is a society that seems to have taken human arrogance to another level. Thousands of animals, including tigers and lions, have become extinct, while geneticists have played god, recreating transgenic animals with names like rakunk and bobkitten. Raremeats are prized in restaurants, rain forests are destroyed and temperatures are rising.
Because the people wanted cheaper security, policing has fallen into the hands of Corporations, such as HelthWyzer, that exploit and control the popuation in a way that makes Big Brother look tame. For example, drugs are tested on the unwary and people are made sick in order to encourage them to buy more medication.
Evil though these Corporations are, it is the common people who bear the brunt of Atwood’s ire. Too much power has slipped into the wrong hands because not enough people stopped it from happening when they could have. Although we see people silenced by fear, it is apathy and selfishness that Atwood has her sights on. Students drink ‘Happicuppa’ coffee oblivious to the environmental protestors and, although some leave the safety of the Compounds, venturing into the Pleeblands to buy soaps and honey from the Gardeners, they do not listen to their message.
And so we are left with an environmental apocalypse of our own making – literally as the virus turns out to be manufactured by scientists. The trouble is, it is a picture of humanity that doesn’t quite ring true. Atwood has extrapolated each environmental crime that mankind currently commits to its most extreme conclusion. We are destroying the rainforests so eventually there will be no rain forests. We don’t do enough to protect endangered species so eventually they will all be extinct. We don’t think enough about what goes into our processed food so eventually we will eat ‘Secretburgers’ where the meat comes from anything dead.
It’s a rather bleak vision that doesn’t really do humanity justice. But then again, this wouldn’t be the first piece of science fiction that asked its readers to suspend disbelief in order to make a point. The great thing about science fiction is that it enables writers to play with big ideas unhampered by the confines of realism. Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of this book is that the ‘big idea’ is not particularly original. Mankind abuses the environment and the world becomes a terrible place is hardly new. Even the idea of the Painballers, criminals who are put into a large ‘zone’ to hunt each other down for the entertainment of others, seems almost embarrasingly unoriginal.
The structure is also confusing at times. Chapters are set in different years with little regard for chronology, leaving this reviewer having to flick back a few chapters to work out what had or hadn’t already happened at one point. Perhaps some things are clearer if you have read Atwood’s earlier novel Oryx and Crake published in 2003. Set in the same society and featuring some of the same characters, it may make some elements clearer. Not having read it myself, I couldn’t comment.
But that’s not to say The Year of the Flood isn’t an entertaining read with some original elements. Well-written, thought-provoking science-fiction, yes; visionary masterpiece, not really.
Click here to read more about Margaret Atwood’s talk in Bristol on 9 September 2009.Jump to top No Comments »
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