Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

It’s for certain the case that the deeper an author gets into a setting that the more possibilities and avenues to expand the setting pop up.  For some authors its planned out all along, to extend and explore various storylines and characters through the world they’ve created in a series of stories or novels.  And sometimes it’s unplanned.  Sometimes an author looks back at the world they’ve created and realized something’s missing—a story still needing to be told.  In The Year of the Flood (2009), Margaret Atwood looked back to her earlier novel Oryx and Crake and decided to tell the other side—what was happening in the world beyond the titular pair, what role did in fact God’s Gardeners play in the circumstances that brought about the global pandemic, and what was life like outside the affluent, protected bubble of life in CorpSeCorps?

A parallel sequel rather than a sequential one, The Year of the Flood features storylines occurring at the same time as those of Oryx and Crake.  Unknown whether Atwood planned it all out in advance, Oryx and Crake did end on an open note that left room for, but did not by default require more.  What was added, however, makes the larger story much more immersive.

The Year of the Flood features two main characters: Toby, a female teacher amongst the God’s Gardner’s cult, and young Ren, a recent recruit to the Gardeners. The novel in fact an intentionally disjointed narrative, Atwood tells Toby and Ren’s stories by bouncing around within their individual timelines, melding them when their paths cross.  On one hand this complements the larger sense of chaos—of the breakout of a global pandemic, while on the other it lends itself toward obfuscation.  With each switch to one of the two women’s perspectives, the reader must take a moment to orient themselves.  Ok, what hasn’t happened yet?  What don’t they yet know?  Etc. The obfuscation superficial only, however, Atwood weaves the deeper plotlines in tight fashion, something which the concluding section of the novel bears the fruit of.  Primary and secondary characters converge in a manner that addresses their individual plights as well as slots into place the conclusion of Oryx and Crake.

There are times that The Year of the Flood feels strongly like an homage—a post-apocalyptic homage—to Angela Carter.  Where Nights at the Circus and The Magic Toyshop feature women in positions of subjugation underpinned by symbolism involving birds and wings, The Year of the Flood offers its parallels.  At one point in her life, Ren ends up working in a brothel, her role one quite avian, with feathers and trapeze.  And the attitude—not necessarily of the characters, rather Atwood herself, is one forthright and fearless, driving the narrative along.  I won’t argue The Year of the Flood is pure homage.  It’s not.  But certainly an essence of Carter lingers.
I normally relegate my thoughts on audiobooks in my reviews to the footnotes, but in The Year of the Flood I think the commentary is worth a more prominent place.  Bernadette Dunne, Katie MacNichol, and Mark Bramhall do a good, professional job rendering Toby, Ren, and Adam One in voice.  But where the audio version really sets itself apart from the rest of the audiobook crowd is in the renditions of the God’s Gardener hymns.  Melodies played in a folksy, southern gospel style, the actual musical performance of Atwood’s fictional hymsn really adds somethine.  Where I can sometimes skip such written material in novels, hearing the hymns actually performed is an exceptional experience.  And it’s clear that the person who wrote the melodies has an ear for such material (not to mention Atwood).  Not only does each song sound like an authentic religious piece, the mood of each complements the narrative at the point in which it appears.  On one hand recognition should be given to Atwood for coming up with the lyrics/stanzas, but on the other it should also be given to the person or people who put the lines to music.  I generally prefer text on the page, but there are some cases where audiobooks do things paper books cannot, and this is one instance.
If there are any complaints about the novel, it would likely be the same as those for Oryx and Crake: a general lack of sophistication.  Reading Atwood’s The Blind Assassin then The Year of the Flood renders the latter relatively simplistic.  Blanco is a run-of-the-mill baddie, and the other characters within the novel are likewise aligned toward familial character slots.  The God’s Gardener’s cult, while detailed in engaging fashion, oscillates between realist and cartoonish, much the same as the CorpSeCorps come across as faceless, though understandable, antagonists.  This is not to say Toby and Ren are not delivered in technicolor, rather that the novel(s) are often more overt than subtle. 
I completed Oryx and Crake feeling a strong sense of satisfaction—that a story had been told and wrapped up.  It was possible to be extended but did not require additional narrative.  With The Year of the Flood, Atwood does expand the larger Oryx and Crake world in parallel but non-detrimental fashion.  It cements the reader’s understanding of the prior story while painting in the larger picture of the cults and social scenes, living circumstances and technological possibilities inherent to the setting.  All sides to the cause of the global pandemic now presented, one assumes that the third and final book, MaddAdam, splices the two novels’ storylines (or what remains) into a single narrative continuation.  One can also assume that it will be done in as satisfying a manner as The Year of the Flood.

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