the year of the flood by margaret atwood

Why exactly has it taken me so long to read any Margaret Atwood books?  It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I realized that she’s written a shit ton of post-apocalypse, dystopian stuff.  An educated guess would point to potential writer-reader soul mate-dom.  But a feeling has kept me away for years, a feeling that I wouldn’t like her work, appearances be damned.  With no hard evidence to support that feeling, and a sneaking suspicion that I might have just made it up, I decided to finally give her work a try.  And so my last trip to the best English-language book store in the region (in the Frankfurt Hugendubel) ended with a copy of The Year of the Flood.

The Year of the Flood takes place in a not-too-distant future.  You might even call it “practically now,” as the book’s world sounds very much like the present, give or take a few years, but with a different set of vocabulary to describe it—a trick that simply allows us to look at our now the way we would look at something foreign.  That is, with new eyes.  In this world, the middle and upper class intellectuals (mostly scientists and computer geeks from the sounds of it) live in gated communities, the ghettos (called pleebs) are full of shopping and violence and abandoned buildings, and an eco-Christian sect called the Gardeners are growing plants on rooves, stockpiling rations, and teaching their followers about foraging and self-defense.  They sound quite a lot like a lot of the anarcho primitivists I know, but quoting the Bible instead of Emma Goldman or Derrick Jensen.

The Gardeners refer to the bible as the “Human Word of God,” and interpret it the way you might imagine a hardcore animal rights activist would.  They preach vegetarianism and warn of the “Waterless Flood” to come.  Their entire creed is based around respecting the earth, vegetarianism, and teaching their followers skills that will help them survive the coming “flood.”  On their rooftop garden they grow their own food, and in the basements of damp abandoned buildings they make vinegar and grow mushrooms.  In little hidden pantries called ararats, they are stowing away food to help them survive the crisis that they are sure is coming.  They take in outcasts from society at large, and though this aspect is never divulged more deeply, they have spies within the corporations who give them information.

The book follows Ren and Toby, two characters whose lives have been intertwined through their experience with the Gardeners, and who have both survived the flood—which turns out to be a pandemic plague that takes down most of humanity—though separately.  Between their alternating tales are sermons by Adam One, the founder of the Gardeners, as well as hymns from their worship services.  (Songs which, by the way, have since been made into actual music.)

These jumps in perspective made the narrative jumpy, hard for me to lose myself in.  Especially in the beginning, I found myself grumbling every time I reached another sermon chapter, though those chapters did convey information important to our understanding of the religion and, later, to the plot development.  Having bought the book solely based on my love of post-apocalyptic fiction, I was also incredibly disappointed to find that The Year of the Flood is more about the time before the end of civilization than it is about how people go about surviving afterwards.  No, despite a book-back-blurb that implies otherwise, this book doesn’t seem to be about the apocalypse at all.  Though I ultimately found myself drawn into the story enough to finish it, it was a huge draw-back as a reader who had purchased the book with very different expectations.

Though Atwood has been praised for her insight into the female psyche, I found myself unable to really relate to either of the characters.  They felt ephemeral to me, almost like ghosts, though without going back and re-reading I could not tell you if this was due to the writing or my reading.  But when near the end of the book (sorry, I forgot to note the page and now can’t find it for a quote) one of the female narrators says something along the lines of “Maybe we were ghosts,” I started to wonder if this was intentional.  Then again, the problem may have simply been that I found them uninteresting.

On the whole Year of the Flood was a pleasant read.  It didn’t blow my mind, but I did enjoy reading it.  I don’t think it is a book that I will necessarily read again and again, but it does offer a few interesting thoughts to the post-apo lit discussion—particularly in the form of the Gardeners.

Are you a Margaret Atwood fan?  Did you love this book?  Or has she written others you’d recommend?  I’m trying to decide if/what of hers I should read next.

Above photo of Margaret Atwood (cc) flickr user mabel.sound

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Monday July 09th 2012, 9:00 am 23 Comments
Filed under: apocalypse now,books,conspiracies

23 Comments so far. Please leave a comment.

Hmm. I guess I’ve bypassed Atwood for similar invalid reasons. So thanks for the recommondation I put it on my (already long) to-read-list.

In exchange I’d like to propose China Mieville, I’ve only read his Bas-Lag-Stuff so far, but it has a tendency for permanent apocalypse and ways around. A bit magic is involved, utopic ideas and steampunk technology (before this word was known). In my opinion it’s unique and worth reading.

(BTW: After your last years call for a list of read books, I’ve managed to keep track permanently, so at the end of 2012 I’m prepared – thumbs up for gorilla-lists!)

Comment by gegenglueck 07.09.12 @ 1:44 pm

Hmm… I also have a Margaret Atwood book on my bookshelf which I keep putting off reading, and I don’t know why! Anyway, can I just say, I *love* your typo in paragraph 3 – are you sure you’re not reading ’50 shades of grey’? Hee, hee!

Comment by fiona 07.09.12 @ 1:58 pm

Atwood is the Grand Dame of Canadian Liturature, or CanLit as the Globe and Mail likes to call it. Read The Handmaid’s Tale for more dystopian fun.

Comment by ian in hamburg 07.09.12 @ 2:48 pm

I read The Handmaid’s Tale, and I liked it, but I felt a similar distance from the characters. I’ve been feeling like I should re-read it, thinking that the distancing was on my end, but maybe it’s the way she writes.

Comment by Jen 07.09.12 @ 3:41 pm

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books. I just finished Cat’s Eye, and it was great– not dystopian like many of her other books, but all about memory, childhood, longing, isolation. It was very involving and I did love it, though it was very intense in some parts. I will have to check out this book as well. Try Gary Shteyngart for some amazing, hilarious, endearing satire….

Comment by Emily 07.09.12 @ 4:30 pm

I’ve only read Oryx and Crake, but I had a similar feeling, like all the characters were ghosts and the whole narrative was just oddly dissociative. There was an actual apocalypse in Oryx and Crake (the companion to Year of the Flood) but most of it is spent in one guy’s recollections of the past. It picked up a little as it went on, but I had a really hard time getting into it, which hasn’t given me a strong urge to read the companion book.

Comment by fishinthewater 07.09.12 @ 4:31 pm

I love Margaret Atwood – I saw her speak when I was in college and she was pretty amazing. Definitely read The Handmaid’s Tale. Oryx and Crake is good too – it’s sort of a parallel story to the Year of the Flood.

If you’re looking for another dystopian book, try Robopocalypse. I picked it up at the library on a whim and it sort of blew my mind. I read it twice in a row because I read it so fast the first time – could not put it down!

Comment by Kati 07.09.12 @ 4:43 pm

I read “The Blind Assassin” in high school during an independent study and fell in love. If you want an Atwood novel with a moving character try Cat’s Eye. Really descriptive, juicier than her others, I think. Not about the apocalypse at all though. Oh! It looks like someone else like’s Cat’s Eye as well, for similar reasons.

Comment by katiemae 07.09.12 @ 6:31 pm

I loved The Handmaid’s Tale in high school (and am flabbergasted that you weren’t assigned it in h.s.!), and went out and bought at least three other books of hers. And encountered the same exact problem. I haven’t read another of her books since, so I applaud you for making it through one. I know many people who swear by her, so I, too, am tempted to try again, but I anticipate putting the book down rather quickly.

Comment by jillH 07.09.12 @ 7:56 pm

I have read a bunch of Margaret Atwood’s books but liked only some of them, and there are others I’ve flipped through and decided not to read.

Cat’s Eye is my favorite. As Emily said, it’s not dystopian…but it portrays a person for whom ordinary suburban life (after an early childhood of traveling with her entomologist father) is a dystopia of sorts.

The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent.

Lady Oracle, about a woman who fakes her own death after her life gets too crazy, is very funny but also makes some interesting points about fame, obesity, family relationships, odd spiritual practices, and self-presentation.

The Edible Woman also is a combination of funny and serious. It was written in the early 1960s, which makes it interesting for those of us who’ve had all of our adult female experience in somewhat more enlightened times.

The two titles I can remember of Atwood books I didn’t like are Surfacing and The Robber Bride.

For dystopia, have you read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson or The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin? Here are my reviews of those and other books.

Comment by 'Becca 07.09.12 @ 8:02 pm

gegenglueck: You are the second person today to recommend China Mieville to me. It’s on my also very long to-read list now. Looks pretty interesting. And woo, glad someone else is in on the book list-keeping. I’m on number 19 right now. You?

fiona: Hahahahahaha. That typo is epic. The proofreader in me wants to go change it right away, but another part of me wants to leave it in there so everyone can have a good laugh. Which book do you have waiting on your shelf?

ian: A bunch of people have been telling me that they can’t believe I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale yet. It’s on the list now.

Jen: I’m glad to hear someone else felt that way too. I kept asking myself if I was just becoming a shitty reader, too distanced from what she was actually saying to feel it.

Fishie: I’ve heard a number of people say they liked this, the companion book, better. *Shrugs.* Who knows.

JillH: Haha, nope no Atwood in high school. I don’t recall us reading anything that contemporary in high school to be honest.

Becca: Your description of Cat’s Eye just made me slide from “probably will never read it” to “might actually try to read it sooner than later.” Thanks. I haven’t read Snow Crash, but I have read The Lathe of Heaven. I LOVE Ursula LeGuin. Swoon. Will have to go check out your reviews.

Aaah, it makes me happy, all this book talk. Thanks for the two cents guys. :)

Comment by clickclackgorilla 07.09.12 @ 8:13 pm

Actually, there is a trend in the modern-day Christian church similar to what you describe. Check out http://www.thesimpleway.org/about/12-marks-of-new-monasticism/.

This is sounding like my next read. Have you read any Scarlett Thomas? Not really apocalyptic, but definately explores the dystopian side of the present day.

Comment by Dome Farm 07.09.12 @ 8:14 pm

I LOVED “The Year of the Flood”, but it admittedly makes more sense if you read “Oryx and Crake” first, you’ll find the same characters again in “The Year of the Flood”. In spite of the Dystopia, it felt realistic to me – I felt that Atwood had just let trends that exist in the “real world” continue to unfold in YOF. A distance is created, I think, because you read about people who look like us, but have had such unfamiliar experiences that they are totally different from us at the same time. (Don’t know if this makes sense to you.)
I felt a little of this distance in “Handmaid’s Tale”, too, which I found excellent, but not at all in “The Robber Bride”, which is so rich in detail and realistic. The characters felt like hyper-realistic portrait paintings to me, like real people in the same room. In fact, I reread “The Robber Bride” once a year and it still delights me.

Comment by Susann 07.09.12 @ 11:00 pm

You know what’s annoying? Sometimes I reply to comments here, then approve comments waiting for my click, and then they appear all up amidst the comments I have already replied to, thus making me look like I have pointedly ignored certain people. Totally not the case. Just saying.

Kati: Thanks for the recommendation. I will add it to the to-read list as well. I’m pretty into post-apocalyptic fiction.

Katimae: Cat’s Eye is officially on The List.

Dome Farm: Whoa. Well I guess it makes sense. A lot of the self sufficiency folks blogging on the internet are Christians that I suppose would fit in with the Gardeners very well.

I have read Scarlett Thomas. One book to be exact: Our Tragic Universe. I quite enjoyed it, though I didn’t feel any sort of dystopian pull in it. What of hers do you recommend then?

Susann: That makes sense, though I don’t know if I would agree that that is why they feel so distant, the characters. I mean there are tons of books with characters whose experiences are nothing like mine, but who I still can really see and feel vividly. Robber Bride, huh? Glad so many Atwood readers read here, so much good insight!

Comment by clickclackgorilla 07.10.12 @ 5:04 pm

I’ve read 2 other of Thomas’ books–Popco is about a woman who works for a quasi-evil toy corporation and becomes slowly disillusioned with the corporate world. There’s a distincltly dystopian feel to the novel, in my opinion, even though everything in it is already happening. I also have read The End of Mr. Y,which has more of a matrix-y (is that a real word?) feel to it.

Comment by Dome Farm 07.10.12 @ 7:38 pm

oryx & crake and the handmaid’s tale were definitely my favorites. overall she’s one of those writers whose books i usually enjoy enough while reading, but feel kinda blah about afterwards. there’s a distance. there’s also not liking some of the characters or not having their motivations be relate-able or realistic to me. i plan to read the year of the flood sometime.

Comment by finn 07.11.12 @ 5:30 am

I second the recommendation for Snow Crash. Actually, I haven’t read Snow Crash yet, but I read the Diamond Age by the same author and loved it so much that I would recommend Snow Crash anyway. I was going to mention it when I commented yesterday but then I thought I had already recommended it to you and didn’t. But here I shall recommend it again.

Comment by fishinthewater 07.11.12 @ 3:16 pm

Dome Farm: Sounds interesting. Much more dystopian-related than what I read.

Finn: I second all those thoughts.

Fishie: Excellent. You own Diamond Age? That I might one day borrow it?

Comment by clickclackgorilla 07.11.12 @ 8:26 pm

Well, my list isn’t about numbers. Actually I’m shocked by the pure number of already read books this year. But no baby-getting-stuff here. And I love to put a simple and fast crime story or two between more hard to read books. This means much in numbers but not in content. (If you want to snoop into the list before the end of the year: I post it on a monthly basis at gegenglueck;)

So, from here I put “The Lathe of Heaven” on my list and like to recommend Neal Stephenson as well. I don’t know Snow Crash (yet!), but I love the 5 other books from him I read so far. And the last part of his baroque circle is waiting for me on my ebook-reader for the cycling tour through northern poland starting saturday – yay!

Comment by gegenglueck 07.11.12 @ 11:54 pm

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Pingback by book obsession reaches new heights | click clack gorilla 07.12.12 @ 1:01 pm

wow, loads of comments for margaret atwood, so we’re all readers huh?

I want to chime in for Alias Grace which I read recently, not so dystopian but a retelling of a crime story that happened in rural Canada in the late 19th century.
Also, I really liked The Edible Woman. It’s a 60′s story about the choices a woman has after university, ie marriage or…., so it’s a bit dated now but still worth reading.

Comment by haveyouseenthisgirl 07.16.12 @ 1:31 pm

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Pingback by world made by hand by james howard kunstler | click clack gorilla 07.30.12 @ 6:10 pm

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