Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Year of the Flood

Typically, novels don't really begin at the beginning. I mean, yes, the stories they tell do tend to be mostly complete, but there is always more that could be told: why did the peripheral characters act the way the did? What happened before this part of the character's life? How did the world get to this point? I doubt there's a single novel that this doesn't apply to, but perhaps it most applies to novels set in the future – near or far. Even futuristic or sci-fi novels that offer an explanatory chapter leave out tremendous details, simply because including them would weigh everything else down. When Margaret Atwood wrote Oryx and Crake, I suppose she faced the same problems. So, rather than simply ignoring the how and why and previous, she wrote another novel. The Year of the Flood takes place in almost the same timeframe as Oryx and Crake, but it is set in the world outside of the sanitary compounds.

In The Year of the Flood, Atwood alternates perspectives between two women: Toby and Ren. Toby is the older of the two and grew up in what is now the pleeblands – major cities and subburbs that have degenerated into filthy, dangerous, rotting places. Her parents are dead and, after believing that she would be implicated in their deaths, she ran away. Toby has a rough time of it on her own and, after getting a job a SecretBurger (a place that serves food so disgusting it's difficult to contemplate) she falls victim to her sexually and physically abusive boss. When she realizes her life is in danger, she is taken in God's Gardeners, a religious sect that is strictly vegetarian and lives on the rooftops and in the abandoned of the pleeb. 

Ren is quite young when we meet her. Her mother, formerly the wife of a compound man, fell in love with Zeb, a Gardener, and ran away, taking her daughter with her. Ren grows up with the Gardeners, learning foraging techniques and running fairly wild with her friends. She is a Gardener – hardly able to remember her previous life – when her mother decides they are going to return to the compound, uprooting her life. Eventually, Ren returns to the pleeblands and becomes a dancer at the strip and sex club Scales and Tails. 

The novel alternates between these two perspectives and also back and forth in time, from present day to memories of the past. At the beginning of the story, the Waterless Flood predicted by the Gardeners has arrived – a virus that is highly contagious and quickly deadly – and both Ren and Toby, alone in their respective exiles, wonder if they are the only ones who have survived. Ren is in a decontamination chamber at the club (her protective layer was damaged and, luckily, she was in quarantine when the virus hit) and Toby is in hiding at a spa, where she managed to also be in isolation when the virus was spreading.

The near-future world that Atwood described in Oryx and Crake comes even more shockingly to life in The Year of the Flood. The incredible sexual violence and general commerce of sex is brought very much to life through the experiences of the two female protagonists, as is the violent reality of life in the pleebs and punishment under the CorpSeCorps men. One such punishment that becomes, in some ways, central to the narrative is PainBall, a kind of battle royal in which prisoners are assigned teams and then let loose inside a caged forest with the goal of killing each other. Making it through PainBall means becoming even more savage than you were when you went in, which means brutal and dangerous men being released back onto the streets to inflict more violence.

But, for all the ugliness and pain that is the world in The Year of the Flood, the stories of the two women, and the characterization of the Gardeners, with its songs and practices, is enthralling. This is a world so fully and vividly realized that in some places it doesn't even feel like you're reading. You don't need to have read Oryx and Crake to read this novel, either, because, although the two stories are connected, neither assumes readers have any prior knowledge. 

The Year of the Flood is successful because it is shocking, but also tender, and its setting is near enough to be familiar, but far enough to not feel imminently threatening. It is a seriously absorbing read, and not one you are likely to forget any time soon.

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from McClelland & Stewart edition)

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