The Year of the Flood, By Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood lets her imagination run wild
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The Independent Culture

A companion novel to 2003's Booker- nominated Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood shares with that work a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, several characters and at least a couple of plot devices. It also shares an impressive authorial imagination, but it is not without considerable flaws.

The flood is a waterless one, a virulent pandemic disease that swiftly wipes out most of the human race. Among the handful of survivors are two women, Toby and Ren, and the book is primarily made up of their life stories in the 20 years that led to their current situation, struggling to survive in a harsh climate with even harsher predators.

The pre-flood world that Atwood describes is vivid and crammed with detail. Society has fractured and the privileged few live in high-security compounds while the majority of humanity survives in slums, where the mob rules and a cornucopia of brutal gangs and religious extremists mark out their territories. One of these religious cults is God's Gardeners, of which Toby and Ren are members. The sect is based around hardcore environmentalism and vegetarianism, and led by Adam One, an oddly uncharismatic pseudo-messiah. God's Gardeners have plenty to be outraged about, because the natural world is a complete mess. Genetic engineering has created animal hybrids and all sorts of weird plants and germs, and the planet is clearly dying. The cult believe the day of reckoning is coming, and it turns out that they're right.

Atwood has a lot of fun with this world, from daft little details to wider satire. The wild animals that now roam include luminous green rabbits and "liobams" – a lion-sheep that's cuddly but deadly. Atwood treats her God's Gardeners with a similar satirical brush, which is where the problems start. Constantly highlighting their preposterous stance makes it hard for the reader to care much about them when things start to go seriously awry. And there is simply far too much back story. The book opens in the year of the flood, immediately gripping the reader with the two narrators' fight for survival, but then we flit back 20 years and it takes a good 300 pages to get back to the action. And during these long sections, all the chat about porcubeavers and cyborg bees in the world can't distract you from the fact that not much actually happens in terms of plot or character development. Also, Atwood's tendency to Capitalise Everything to give it Significance is a terrible sci-fi cliché and becomes wearing after a while.

Sadly, when we do edge towards the climax, Atwood resorts to absurd coincidence to move the plot along – survivors in a huge, wild landscape are always in the right place at the right time to meet each other. The author also feels the need to tie her plot into the storyline of Oryx and Crake more than seems necessary, to the detriment of this novel's effectiveness. All of which means that, while The Year of the Flood is jam-packed with interesting ideas, they are not enough to make it a successful novel.