The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood
I know that sounds bad, but her dystopian visions are so profoundly disturbing, I find they influence my thinking for forever after. Say what you will--her nightmares are not easy to dismiss!
Readers of 2003's Oryx and Crake will recognize the world of The Year of the Flood. Neither a prequel nor a sequel, the latter is more of a companion novel. It's set in the same world, covering roughly the same time span. Whereas Oryx and Crake was a post-apocalyptic narrative told from Jimmy's point of view, here the narrators are Toby and Ren. Jimmy, Oryx, and Crake make appearances in this novel, and readers of both books will discover minor characters from the former are major characters in the latter. In short, the two are intertwined, but may be read in any order. It is not necessary to have read Oryx and Crake first, thought ultimately reading them both is an immensely satisfying experience, shedding light on many aspects of the story being told.
Now to the story... Toby and Ren have both spent significant portions of their lives with a fringe religious group called God's Gardeners. Ren was brought to the ascetic group as a child by her mother. Toby found her way there out of desperation in adulthood. Each has professed a disbelief in the tenets of the religion, but the pacifistic and environmental teachings of the group have become deeply ingrained in both. At the opening of the novel, it is Year Twenty-Five in the God's Gardeners' calendar; the Year of the Waterless Flood.
From the beginning, the group's prophet-like leader had preached that a "waterless flood" was coming to wipe out humanity. In addition to their dogmatic environmentalism, the group believed in preparing for this flood with survival skills and food caches called "Ararats." The predicted day has come in the form of a global pandemic. Society has broken down completely. From their respective places of isolation, each woman wonders if she may be the last human left and struggles to survive in this altered world.
As everyone knows, there's nothing like apocalypse to make a person introspective. As each woman reflects upon the ups and downs of her life with the Gardeners and beyond, the reader gradually gleans a fuller picture of the world these women lived in, their individual and joint histories, what led to cataclysm, and what has ultimately happened to the world.
As one might expect from Atwood, The Year of the Flood is a beautiful telling of an ugly story. And what a story it is! In addition to being very much a novel of ideas, it is an utterly un-put-downable page-turner! It's a quick read, with lots of short chapters and white space on the pages. The novel flies by. The ending is satisfying and unsatisfying at once. It sheds some light on Oryx and Crake's enigmatic conclusion and completes this arc of the story, but leaves this reader very much hoping for a final volume of this rumored trilogy.