Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

My second reading goal for 2011 (other than reducing my TBR) is to read an occasional novel outside my preferred crime fiction genre. And I couldn’t really complete a Canadian Book Challenge without including a title by the woman often called Canada’s Greatest Living Writer could I?

There was a time when I devoured dystopian fiction in all its forms but it’s been a while since I felt the lure of that particular sub-genre. Some years ago and almost overnight I seemed to lose all interest in allegorical tales and brand (sometimes brave) new worlds. So I somewhat surprised myself recently when I eagerly selected Margaret Atwood’s recent companion novel to 2003’s Oryx and Crake, though I admit a large part of my interest was due to the format. The best of Atwood’s prose has always bordered on poetry and poetry is, in turn, at its best when read aloud.

Atwood is not new to imagining for us civilizations gone wrong. Here, in the same setting and time frame in which Oryx and Crake takes place it is Year 25 after the vaguely described collapse of civilization due to genetic engineering gone awry (or not depending on your point of view). In the current year there has been a further cataclysmic event, called a waterless flood by the dominant religious cult in the society though in reality a kind of virulent plague, which only those who were isolated at the time have survived. Two of the survivors are Toby, a mature woman who had barricaded herself in the luxury spa in which she worked, and Ren a younger girl who happened to be in her strip-club’s isolation tank when the virus broke out.

The first two thirds of the novel consists of alternating flashbacks from Toby and Ren detailing their lives from the first year to the present day. The local governance is provided by a Corporation called Helth Wizer, an evil corporation intent on weird science and killing people who fail to follow the rules then using their body parts as the ingredients in Secret Burgers. People either live in Helth Wizer’s luxury compound, the dangerous areas outside known as the pleeblands or in the rooftop garden and surrounding buildings populated by God’s Gardeners. The Gardeners are led by the enigmatic Adam One and espouse a mixture of pop psychology, radical environmentalism and a disdain for science. The final third of the novel takes place in real-time as the few survivors of the waterless flood find each other and attempt to keep surviving.

Atwood vehemently argues she doesn’t write science fiction because any of the science in her books is possible today, though she seems comfortable with the speculative fiction label. Based on this book anyway that seems a fair call. The strongest element of the novel by far is the complex, intricate picture it presents of a world transformed by a mixture of natural events and humankind’s astonishing capacity for arrogance. The new world has its own rules, nomenclature (sometimes funny, sometimes eye-rollingly cute), detailed societal structure and scientific experimentation, particularly of the genetic splicing kind, gone mad. The beliefs espoused by God’s Gardeners are also described in a lot of detail partly through Toby and Ren’s memories (both women were members for a time) and also because each new section of the novel takes place on one of the religion’s many saint’s days and commences with a sermon and a hymn (more about the hymns later). I did get a chuckle out of the saints who were mostly heroes of modern environmental movements including Dianne Fossey, James Lovelock and Australia’s own Tim Flannnery.

Reading this novel was, for me, like reading a very detailed travel diary of someone else’s trip to an exotic place I’ve never been. Bits of it were mildly interesting, some of it was unfathomable and quite a bit of it was fairly dull. While many of the ‘big things’ in the novel are not clearly described or defined (for example you’re never sure where this is all taking place, I assume it’s somewhere in North America, possibly even Atwood’s native Canada, but I have read reviews which talk about it being in England) many of the small things are described in minute detail. Much of Toby and Ren’s reminiscences relate to chores they undertook, meals they ate, classes they took or taught and religious ceremonies they participated in. For a while these are mildly interesting but 13 hours turned out to be more than enough for me.

Other than this I felt like there wasn’t a lot of substance to the novel. The doom and gloom message about the world going to hell in a handbasket if we continue on in our destructive, consumptive ways is all very well (and highly likely to be totally true) but here it was told without subtlety and lightness of touch. Long before the end I was willing to shout “I get the point, please stop repeating yourself now and tell me about something actually happening”. I think if you’re already on the ‘green’ side of the fence you’re going to be nodding and mumbling “right on sister” all the way along and if you’re on the ‘let’s all drive SUVs and hunt panda bears for sport’ side of the fence you’ll think this is all crackpot nonsense and probably stop reading. To me it’s too blunt and preachy to really engage the undecideds if that is indeed part of Atwood’s mission.

Finally, the characters are not particularly compelling. Toby and Ren are not awful, they’re not wonderful, they’re just two ordinary people who go through a whole lot of stuff, a small portion of which is dramatically interesting, and who, like most of us, don’t have profound things to say much of the time. Imagine any random two women you know then wonder just how much of their lives and thoughts you’d want to be let into. There are some lovely moments with each of them when they have an insight into their respective plights, and there are a few vignettes of true warmth or stark beauty with other characters too. But they’re noticeable for their rarity.

Perhaps I’ve simply passed the time in my life when dystopian futures can truly engage me or perhaps I’ve become too used to narratives which tell a more plot-driven story than this more literary work. I think the writing itself was a bit more pedestrian than Atwood’s best and ultimately I thought it could have done with a good edit and a reason to finish it.

What about the audio book

Lorelei King had a lovely narrating style, barely changing her voice at all for the different characters or sections of the book though somehow making it easy to follow regardless of that. However I really could have done without the hymns. Atwood wrote the words of 14 hymns which start each section of the book and some dude put her words to the kind of music that reminded me why I hated going to church when I was a kid. If you follow the link you can hear what I mean (click on the listen button next to any of the songs and you can hear it without needing to pay and download).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Other participants in the Canadian Book Challenge have reviewed the book and loved it a whole lot more than I did so do check out reviews at An Adventure in ReadingBad Tempered ZombieJules’ Book Reviews, Reading Through Life. Though I was a little heartened to see that I am not completely alone in my feelings, the Challenge’s host John from The Book Mine Set felt a little bit similar to me, this is not Atwood at her best. Meh would sum it up nicely for me too John

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 2.5/5
Author website
Narrator Lorelei King
Publisher BBC WW [2009]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from
Length 12 hours 52 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series Sequel/companion to Oryx and Crake
Source I bought it

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11 Responses to Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

  1. kathy durkin says:

    Very good review of this book, enough so that I don’t think I’ll read it. It’s a bit disappointing, though, as Atwood is such a terrific writer in general. As always, your reviews add something to the thought process.


  2. @kathy The Handmaid’s Tale was one of my favourite books for many years – I’ve kinda stopped listing it but only because it’s been a long time since I re-read it and am not sure I would react the same way to it now. Still she normally is a great writer, I just thought this one was a bit of filler. Or perhaps she is so revered that no one will tell her the truth about her work. Or it could just be that I have moved on from the kind of things she writes, in particular this theme as it is one I am very familiar with and unless someone can bring something really unique to the field than I will find it more boring than someone who is newer to the ideas. It’s all so subjective in the end.


  3. Jose Ignacio says:

    An excellent review Bernadette. I may try some Margaret Atwood’s book, but certainly not this one.


  4. JoV says:

    For a time I want to read this book but not sure how it will fare. You are probably right in saying that she has been revered that no one will ever say her books didn’t appeal at times. I read The Handmaid’s Tale, although intriguing in part I felt the story didn’t flow as it should.

    I’ll give this a skip and read Cat’s Eyes for next Atwood. Thanks for the brilliant review as always Bernadette.

    Can this qualify as your 7th continent read for the Global Reading Challenge?


  5. Bernadette – I really appreciate your thoughtful and detailed review. I agree completely that if a book is going to be “a keeper,” it needs to give the reader compelling characters and, as you say, a good reason to finish it. I’ll probably wait on this one…


  6. Maxine says:

    Great review, Bernadette, and it intelligently sums up some of the reasons why I did not enjoy Oryx and Crake very much. I didn’t mind that book, and thought parts of it well written, but for me it did not add up to that much in terms of originality, though there were lots of interesting (and imaginative) details, the whole was somewhat predictable.

    So I decided not to read Year of the Flood and reading your review I think I will stick to that decision. Unlike you I did not like The Handmaid’s Tale at all, disliking its combination of sci-fi and obvious strident feminist message. I think it is unfortunate that it is a school syllabus book.

    I shall probably now be shot for writing the above as I know Margaret Atwood is revered by many. But although I can appreciate that she has a great deal of talent as a writer, I have not actively enjoyed the novels of hers that I’ve read, finding them a bit of a duty.


  7. Wow, I really admire your ability to review this book. I tried to write a review of recently and found myself incapable of doing so – I loved to book so much is gets full marks from me. When my review (or lack thereof) goes up I invite people to leave a link in the comments to their review – I would love it if you could leave a link to yours.

    I just can’t put my finger on what I loved so much about this book, but I did. Ie njoyed it better than Oryx and Crake, which I loved as well. I find her writing fabulous and her stories original. I can’t wait for the third book in this trilogy.


  8. @JoV – if you do plan to read this one I think it would be easier if you had read Oryx and Crake first – not essential but would make a few things clearer. I had forgotten about my ‘seventh continent’ – I’ll see how I go with the rest of the books from my TBR and may end up counting this one

    @Maxine I’m fairly sure no one here will shoot you for saying unkind things about Ms Atwood as I don’t seem to attract that kind of loud mouth moron – having a small readership is a bonus in lots of ways. Regarding The Handmaid’s Tale I know that my reaction to it was in large part a product of when I read it – I had just finished high school – a fairly restrictive Catholic one where girls were trained to be secretaries or teachers before becoming wives and producers of more little Catholics while the boys at the companion Catholic school learned cool things like science – and I was ripe for the kind of message that Atwood incorporated into that book. I re-read it a couple of times in my twenties and still had that warm afterglow of its first reading but now I think I might view it quite differently.

    @Becky it’s funny how it can be hard to write a review of a book you love – I felt that way about Peter Temple’s Truth last year and never did manage to post a review. I think you tend to be less critical/objective than you feel you ought to be or something. I’m glad you enjoyed Flood even if I didn’t – it would be so dull if we all had the same tastes – and I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts when you manage to post them.


  9. kathy durkin says:

    Personal taste in books and likes and dislikes is all part of the fun of it all, reading and discussing books. What a drab world it would be if we all agreed, and no one would have to write reviews or read them.
    I didn’t read “A Handmaid’s Tale,” but many friends did at the time you had graduated from that school, and they liked it. The buzz was all positive about that book at the time it was published–among women.
    I read several of Atwood’s books. What I enjoyed was that they were all completely different from each other and made me think. I was amazed at her writing skills.


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