Monday, 18 July 2011

Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: Book Review

Drink with this: a Grasshopper.
 Sweet and frothy enough to dispel the grotesquery of Atwood’s dystopia.  The aggressive jade of the crème de menthe echoes the obsessive focus on nature recurring throughout the novel. Thick and sickly creaminess brings to mind the novel’s heavy-handed approach to allegory.  

Atwood is a writer I feel I should like more than I do. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale of course, but that’s a given really, no more profound than stating a fondness for cake, or an appreciation of bellinis. It’s easy to enjoy. Oryx and Crake I liked too: but in general Atwood’s writing strikes me as clever but lacking emotional depth. She skilfully creates vividly realised worlds, wrought by the powerful fault lines of the ideologies she explores. But her characters fail to engage the reader, and the ultimate impression is one of a writer bent on exhibiting literary techniques rather than constructing a compelling narrative.

Year of the Flood is no exception to this.  It follows two female characters, Toby and Ren, who seem to be the sole survivors of a devastating plague which has a struck an already blighted futuristic world. Sadly, Atwood doesn’t put her descriptive abilities to use actually telling us about the disaster which has hit Earth.  We don’t even get any satisfyingly gruesome passages describing the aftermath, along with all its de rigueur dystopian features. (Frenzied looting, city-wide stench from rotting corpses, realisation that the disaster has been worldwide.) The first half of the book lamentably sacrifices this kind of apocalyptic action entirely for scene setting and character development.

Despite her focus on the characters, I didn’t find either Toby or Ren particularly sympathetic. This might have been because of their involvement with the cult the book revolves around, the God’s Gardeners. Cults are bizarre and irritating, and if they have to be the subject of  books I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to expect some brainwashing and similar seedy practices from them. Atwood hints at some unscrupulous undertakings, but quickly moves on to explore in more detail their love for bees and celebration of organic vegetables. Tongue-in-cheek sermons and hymns at the start of each chapter are an attempt to inject some humour into the novel. But these passages are poised uncomfortably on the edge of satire, never quite coming close enough to compensate for the tedium of reading them.

Atwood’s treatment of environmental issues is one of the stronger aspects of the novel. She has argued that the bleak themes she develops in YOTF are all extrapolated from existing technologies and societal trends. There is definitely some basis for this in terms of her investigation into climate change and genetic engineering, and it’s great to see a mainstream novelist exploring these ideas. 
However, the world view she presents is rooted in an essentially pessimistic view of humanity. While I’m not an optimist by any stretch of the imagination, (on a good day, my attitude to life is similar to Eeyore’s) this is not the dystopian future I like to envisage. John Wyndham and Stephen King have taught me that there is one plot only appropriate to the post-apocalyptic novel. By right, it goes like this: massive disaster caused by error of a few misguided individuals; everyone dies bar a  few isolated strangers; process of rebuilding commences following struggle for survival; attempts are made to recognise and move on from mistakes of the past for the sake of future generations.

The final part of this plot structure is crucial. Atwood’s characterisation felt two-dimensional as there’s no opportunity for her characters to achieve any kind of redemption, or realisation that things must change. Even before the plague, they are annoyingly self-righteous.

As the God’s Gardeners, they stand apart from the mistakes made by humanity.  The sole real event of the book therefore changes virtually nothing – the cult continues to operate unscathed in much the same way as it did prior to the disaster.  Of course there are meant to be biblical parallels here, with only the chosen few surviving. Atwood seems to have intended the book to be a kind of fable, rather than a realistic depiction of human nature. 

Her CorpSeCorps is a corrupt organisation straight out a Bond film, or Alex Rider novel, with almost complete omnipotence and omniscience. Maybe I am a blind optimist after all, but I found the total control exerted and the lack of any kind of organised revolutionary movement a strain to credulity.  This was essentially my main objection to the novel. Being asked to swallow completely implausible plot details feels patronizing, and detracts both from my enjoyment and from the overall impact of Atwood’s message.

Verdict: Despite this overwhelmingly negative review, this book does deal with some important issues. Don’t buy, but borrow from the library, to scare yourself into taking climate change more seriously.  And feel free to skip the sermons.

On the big screen: I would however be interested in seeing a Hollywood adaptation of this. What this book needs is Spielberg to come in and force the plot into a 120 hour sentiment-fest, with all the dross cut out and the action increased. Susan Sarandon could definitely play Toby, and Jennifer Lawrence could pull off Ren. However, if we’re imagining a page to screen adaptation which is actually faithful to the spirit of the novel, then David Lynch all the way. I think he could take the more bizarre elements and make them beautiful.

Highbrow/Lowbrow: Closer to The Road than The Stand


  1. Agree with your overall viewpoint esp. as regards the lack of emotional depth of Atwood's characterisation. I think you're slightly harsh on the novel as a whole as I think the themes are relevant and interesting helping the reader to overlook deficiencies in other areas. I also liked her satirical tone at various points. I could easily see it being made into a film and l like your ideas for that.

  2. Hello Anonymous! Yes, it perhaps wasn't a very balanced review. Although I don't really want to have to 'overlook deficiencies' when I read - I expect more of writers of Atwood's supposed calibre. Yup it would surprise me if it's not made into a film at some point in the future. The environmental themes may not play as well in Hollywood/the US though.