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