I started reading the much-anticipated The Year of the Flood before the Giller shortlist was announced and the blogs and papers started buzzing in shock at this grand dame’s exclusion from our most lucrative literary award. But after completing the book, I can understand why this venerable Canadian scribe was left out in the cold.
I’m not saying it’s a bad book. Atwood has earned her reputation, and the prose is riddled with the usual dark humor, clever wordplay and striking imagery (a few pages in she compares the unruly bushes to frayed hairbrushes — perfect). The characters are fully realized, and I delighted in Ren, though admittedly, Toby was a little drab. I found reading the book over two days on the thanksgiving weekend easier than digesting dinner, and perhaps that’s the problem.
But first, a small synopsis: YOTF takes us back to the world presented in Oryx & Crake, where the majority of the population has been wiped out by a virus, and only a smattering of humans remain. YOTF focuses on two of these humans, Ren, a young sex worker, and Toby, an active member of a religious sect, the God’s Gardener’s. Ren and Toby’s stories have two threads: the present (how they survived “the flood,” how they continue to do so) and the past, in which both lived with a group of radical luddites and environmentalists who respect the sanctity of all life. We learn a great deal about the God’s Gardeners through their hymns and the monologues of their leader, Adam One. And while their way of life was interesting, these periods lack momentum. Eventually, the end of YOTF meets the end of Oryx & Crake, and we now get another perspective on a familiar scene.
Now, back to my principal reservation about the book: I feel like I’ve seen all this before. Okay, it’s a prequel (or a simultanuel as Eileen points out in the comments), that’s fair, you say, but the problem is, I don’t feel like YOTF added anything of significance to the world Atwood already created, which should be the idea behind a prequel. It’s neat to be back in Atwood’s dystopia, but all of the features of that world have lost their edge, the shock of novelty and Atwood’s audacity. YOTF is a character-driven narrative rather than a novel of ideas. It lacks some of the more profound conclusions that O & C offered up. It’s an up-close study of a cult, and the hypocrisy therein, but that’s hardly surprising, and strangely I found O & C’s commentary on religion far more startling and profound: the Crakers, those supposedly designed to have no religion, are making their own Gods.
Perhaps there is a more sophisticated interplay between the two novels that I missed; I didn’t re-read Oryx & Crake prior to taking on YOTF. Atwood says it’s a standalone novel, and so I treated as such (rereading seems such an impossible luxury anyway). Perhaps YOTF is richer if O & C is fresh, so if you read them both, please feel free to add your additional insight. I will say it’s amusing to see characters from Oryx & Crake make appearances in the YOTF narrative — like crossover episodes on popular television shows — though for me, a different perspective provided no real additional insight into those characters.
So yes, I have some criticisms, but it is still a fine novel, though perhaps not as thought-provoking as Oryx & Crake, or as terrifying at The Handmaid’s Tale. As a reader, this dystopia feels almost too comfortable. It’s a novel which, unlike its predecessor, doesn’t take any chances, and that could be just what kept this Lady Oracle off the Giller shortlist.