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The Year of the Flood

by Margaret Atwood

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Year of the Flood
© Doubleday
Doubleday, 2009

Margaret Atwood is famous for dystopic novels, including the Booker Prize-Winning The Handmaid's Tale. Fans of Atwood's won't be disappointed by The Year of the Flood, which explores environmental and Biblical themes. The characters are well developed, and they're a compelling mixture of archaic and futuristic-just like we moderns. The plot follows a religious group called the Gardeners who are waiting for what their scripture calls the Waterless Flood. While they wait, they live simply, following customs from earlier generations; they keep bees, wear top-to-toes (cloaks of a sort), celebrate saints' days, sing hymns, grow their own food (vegetarian), and heal wounds using maggots. However, many of their hymns include modern scientific concepts like DNA and evolution. We learn later in the novel that the Gardeners have been secretly using modern communications systems to keep in touch with other groups across the country. But the overall feeling of the group is of resisting modernity, sometimes to the disgust of its teenage members.

The Waterless Flood - a disease pandemic - indeed arrives. Most people are killed. Many of the Gardeners we're following survive, thanks to their old-fashioned knowledge. They're forced to interact with the Exfernal World a bit more than they'd like. However, as the novel unfolds, we learn of the many ways they've already been individually interacting with that world, often to their detriment. After the Waterless Flood, some of the Gardeners reunite and share survival stories.
What's remarkable about this novel is Atwood's ability to write a world that feels so very familiar, yet so futuristic, at the same time. It's a joy to read the language describing animals, technology, and places that don't exist but that are still immediately recognizable. Some of the book is set in Scales and Tails, a (shall we call it) gentleman's club, where the dancers wear Biofilm Bodygloves, some of which shimmer with scales. SecretBurger employs wage-slaves. People who come from the Compound say things like "Illness is a design flaw. It could be corrected." CorpSeCorps serves as the police force. Criminals are put into the Painball Pit, where they fight to the death with sprayguns. Women primp at AnooYoo spa.

The exfernals in this novel have created green rabbits and Mo'Hairs (sheep with long, soft, brightly colored fur). One of the religious groups has created a liobam to hurry the time when the lion will lie down with the lamb. (It's a member of the Peaceable Kingdom list.) But they've also wrecked the earth. They live with the horrors of rape, forced prostitution, and a wide gulf between the haves and have-nots. They're no better off than we are. The Gardeners revere the planet, and the book is framed with Adam One's sermons and the Gardeners' hymns. (A first stanza: "We praise the tiny perfect Moles/That garden underground;/The Ant, the Worm, the Nematode,/Wherever they are found.") But they keep apart from the rest of humanity and find themselves mostly impotent after the Waterless Flood.
Atwood has a perfect ear for the incongruities and indignities of modern life. She makes everything just strange enough to teach a lesson, without alienating us. The more you know about religion, the more that language will resonate. The more environmental activists you know, the better you'll enjoy the Gardeners' saints' days. But this book is many-layered and can be appreciated on all of its layers: As a novel with rich and deep characters. As a parable. As a heartbreaking tragedy. As a referendum on modern life. It's a worthwhile and important read that longtime Atwood readers and those new to her dystopian worlds are sure to appreciate.
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