Everything and nothing changes in “The Year of the Flood,” the second book of Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam Trilogy.”
I have to admit, when I first read “Oryx and Crake,” I didn’t know it was going to be part of a trilogy. When I first read “The Year of the Flood,” I thought of it as a “sequel,” not knowing it was the second book in the trilogy.
Upon first reading “The Year of the Flood,” I was filled with a desire – often thwarted — to learn what happens next: Where was Atwood going with this post-apocalyptic world? I wanted to know what happened after the end of “Oryx and Crake,” when Snowman (aka Jimmy) sees other living humans for the first time since most of humanity got wiped out by a human-made biological pandemic. That pandemic, caused by the title characters of the first novel, is now referred to as a “flood” in the second book’s title. I wanted to know where Atwood’s world would go after the end of the world.
“The Year of the Flood” is told (for the most part) from the points of view of two women: Toby and Ren. And, like “Oryx and Crake,” much of their stories are told in flashback, covering the years before the “flood,” which thwarted my plot-based desires. However, what stories they had to tell! Toby and Ren’s lives are deep in the pleeblands (as opposed to the compounds), and that space allows for some of the richest flowering of Atwood’s imagined world.
The cult-like group of off-the-grid people who call themselves “God’s Gardeners” is a brilliant creation. The try to live pure vegetarian lives, growing food on a rooftop garden and staying away from the Internet. They have days named for various saints, some named for recognizable figures such as Dian Fossey, Rachel Carson, Karen Silkwood and Sojourner Truth. (A blog lists these saints names here: http://theyearoftheflood.weebly.com/4/post/2010/11/saints.html.)
And they have songs – they are fully recorded with vocals and instruments in the audiobook version – to reflect a belief system in which they predict “a waterless flood.” And that prediction turns out to be true, via the pandemic that wipes out most of humanity, except for many of the members of God’s Gardeners and even some truly evil men known as “Painballers.” That is convicts who have turned into something like soulless gladiators and who survived not only the life-or-death arenas but also the “waterless flood.”
They roam the post-apocalyptic earth ready to wreak havoc on not just other people, but also any docile liobams (a genetic cross between a lion and a lamb – how’s that for a brilliant post-modern biblical allusion) or the more violent (and smarter) pigoons.
In fact, one of the painballers used to work as a manager at a Secret Burger (the secret was that you never knew the source of the meat; cow, or something else?), where he was known to “date” (aka rape) the women who worked there until he got tired of them and they mysteriously disappeared.
Toby worked at that Secret Burger. And soon after Toby caught the manager’s eye, and before she is raped and killed, the God’s Gardeners swoop in and rescue her, led by a man called Adam One, who speaks like a priest.
Toby is my favorite character in the novel. She joins the Gardeners, and even though she never truly believes the quasi-religion and always feels like an outsider, she absorbs many of their lessons and learns how to take care of herself, how to tend to bees (and talk to them), and how to survive as a God’s Gardener. She is a fully realized character whose predicament – before and after the Flood she is hounded by a murderous rapist – only deepens the precariousness of her situation.
Even more heartbreaking for her is that she has real feelings for one of the more mysterious figures of God’s Gardeners, a man named Zeb, who is often gone for long stretches of time on mysterious errands.
Ren, the other point of view character in the novel, is also a fully realized character, but she is much younger (she is actually the daughter of Zeb’s girlfriend) and, like a young person, often comes across as naïve and petulant. Nonetheless, her character allows for a child’s point of view of the God’s Gardeners, such as the mean nicknames they have for their teachers (they called Toby “Dry Witch” because she seemed strict and asexual), and for a young woman’s view of life in the pleeblands, because Ren becomes an exotic trapeze dancer at a sex club called Scales and Tails.
Through Ren and Toby, we get to see the rich diversity of the harsh dystopian pre-flood world that is Atwood’s creation. It is definitely a darkly humorous place to read about, though you would never want to go there.
Well, I take that back. When I reread the first book of the trilogy, “Oryx and Crake,” I found it rather claustrophobic (with its focus on Snowman’s point of view and his limited worldview that was shaped by growing up and working in various Compounds). What I was truly missing, though, were Toby and even Ren and their hard lives in the pleeblands.
Their characters give “The Year of the Flood” an emotional connection, and thus make the reading of it very rewarding – even if its connection to “Oryx and Crake” (the answer to who those other people are that Snowman sees) comes deep into the novel. It’s worth the wait.