WARNING: Review contains spoilers about the plot of Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy.
Do you ever have the experience of reading a book and liking it and not actually remembering all that much about it? Where you’ve read it, perhaps, too quickly and when it’s done you’re left with the stark knowledge that you like it—maybe even loved it—but that knowledge is not tied to anything specific? I am pretty sure that’s what happened to me the first time I read Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which made rereading it a peculiar experience. Actually, this happens to me a lot which is one reason I tend to reread books so often.
Back to the book. The Year of the Flood is the second book in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy but I would not call it a sequel. The events in The Year of the Flood happen, for the most part, concurrently with the events of Oryx and Crake. Sometimes it’s the same events happening as in Oryx and Crake but from a very different perspective. The last third or so of The Year of the Flood dovetails with the end of Oryx and Crake in such a way that The Year of the Flood picks up the tail end of Jimmy’s narrative in Oryx and Crake and extends it a little further—but just a little further, and like the ending of Oryx and Crake, the book ends with an abrupt cliffhanger. Really I think the best description of The Year of the Flood is a companion piece to Oryx and Crake. I wonder about the effect of order since in terms of plot one does not really precede the other. I wonder what it would be like to read The Year of the Flood first and then read Oryx and Crake.
As much as it is a companion piece, The Year of the Flood is an inversion of Oryx and Crake; where Oryx and Crake was a story of the privileged, the masculine, of reductive science The Year of the Flood is a book about the feminine, the marginalized and victimized and of spiritualism. The Year of the Flood follows two viewpoint characters: Toby, a woman with a vicious and lengthy streak of bad luck matched only by her inherent talent to survive, and Ren, a girl whose naivete and frivolity masks an impressive adaptability. The connection between Toby and Ren is that, for a time, both were members of a religious cult named God’s Gardeners. God’s Gardeners is a pacifist and technophobic ecoreligious group preparing for the apocalypse—the Waterless Flood—which they are sure the increasingly morally bankrupt scientific ventures of the ruling corporations are sure to bring about. And we know from having read Oryx and Crake that God’s Gardners’ prediction is true: Crake unleashes a virulent and deadly virus that elminates the vast majority of the world’s population, completely and utterly destroying civilization as we know it. God’s Gardeners, in a move that strikes the readers as prescient given we already know what will happen but a move that seems bizarre to those in the books before it happens, build secret Ararats, caches of foodstuffs and necessaries to get them through the Waterless Flood in one piece. The preach, they build gardens and keep bees, they sequester themselves from the rest of the pleebland mobs and gangs. They harbor runaway scientists from the Corporation Compounds who have had pangs of conscience. God’s Gardeners become a sort of character in itself; each section of the book is preceded by a sermon spoken by Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, and each of his sermons is immediately followed by a Gardener Hymn*.
Over the course of the book God’s Gardeners has many faces—harmless, heroic, broken, trapped. We see the functioning of the Gardeners at their prime both through the eyes of Toby, who ascends through the cult’s ranks and becomes a leader within it, though begrudgingly, and through the eyes of Ren, who is raised among the Gardeners during her adolescence. There are other things, too, that we get this multifaceted view of: Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake flits in and out of Ren’s life**. We see the things Crake did when Jimmy wasn’t around. We see a whole other side of the world than the side Jimmy showed us, namely the poor and broken places, the dregs of this world. The places the Corporations have written off, and the people the Corporations have written off. And, likewise, we see Toby through her own eyes and through the eyes of Ren at multiple points in time. And Ren through her own eyes and through the eyes of Toby at multiple points in time. Oryx and Crake dealt a lot in fixedness—one narrator, one linear story, one set of values. The Year of the Flood deals in multiplicities, in complexities—multiple interacting narrators, a crowd of stories, a pantheon of value sets which change from person to person and within a single person over time. Oryx and Crake seems to focus on the absolutes of identity where The Year of the Flood explores the relational interdependencies that shape us all.
I find it hard to rate this book by itself, especially given that so much of my experience of it and thinking about it is tied to Oryx and Crake. I am now leaning towards rating them of a piece together, which after I read MaddAddam may be revised. But for now, I give it four stars for its depth, for its crystalline characterization and for the scope of its examination of how actions can be spiritual without faith behind them.
*The book states these are from the Oral Gardener Hymnal, but considering that the point is made more than once that the members of God’s Gardeners are wary of writing and refuse to leave written records I can’t help but wonder who compiled the hymnal. Perhaps this is something Atwood will address in MaddAddam. More likely this is proof of my nerdy fanboy ovethinking it mind.
**At first this bothered me; it seemed too pat and too convenient for Jimmy to keep popping up over and over again. But then I remembered how sequestered the characters in these books are—the Corporations lock you in, track your movements. Geographic mobility is long gone. And in a world like that you may indeed run into your high school sweetheart over and over and over and over. That utter lack of escape from your past sure sounds like hell.