Let me begin by saying that I love Margaret Atwood. The dream of touching the hands that created such beautiful poetic prose is one that I am sadly realising will never come true. I am an avid and faithful collector of all her works of fiction, committed to filling my bookshelves with Atwood’s creations, and, perhaps blasphemously, not minding about the dog-eared appearance of some of my charity shop lucky finds. I read her books regularly, repeatedly, owning the claim that I have read each item in my collection ‘at least once, of course!’ I am easy to buy for at Christmas due to the prolificacy of her writing; not only novels, but poetry, lectures and articles. I have a ready answer to the ice-breaker, ‘so, who’s your favourite author?’ I am lucky that I found her so young. I am blessed, and I am grateful for this every time I submerge myself in her mesmerising world. Several times a year my partner is an Atwood widower. She makes me want to write like her, to reveal these inner worlds, painful and infuriating and beautiful, challenging society from the safety of a dingy room and an internal turmoil. She gives me the belief that curled inside me is a powerful yet vulnerable tale of sexuality, oppression and rage. I am constantly amazed at the words she pulls out of the page in succession, and often I re-read phrases and paragraphs in order to digest it fully, to do it justice, to appreciate this work of art.
Imagine, then, if you will, my utter disappointment on reading The Year of the Flood. I consider myself well enough informed to comment, and I am not afraid to be damning. Her penultimate novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003 and I am the proud owner of the first edition hardback (a rarity on my student budget). This novel intrigued me at first- I was surprised by the political subtext, the scientific terminology and the gloomy futuristic outlook. The text was thick with biological language, describing a world that could easily have begun with the one we crave now (genetically modifying, gene splicing, eradicating disease and anger, creating the Perfect Human Being) which was shudderingly unsettling. I am not a science fiction fan, I am not particularly into politics, and I have never had a ‘Science brain’ but despite this unlikely combination, I thoroughly enjoyed the book (and have subsequently read it twice more). Snowman (born Jimmy) is living a meagre existence, struggling to combat hunger and protect himself from extreme weather conditions, battling with Crake’s legacy of a crumbling world. There are flashbacks to his childhood which explain the background to the apocalyptic present, and the sub-plot of the unfulfilling love affair with Oryx. I enjoyed the novel because Atwood continued to portray the human condition in all its ugliness and glory, its dreams and failures, grief and passion, whilst introducing us to a new world order. And so we come to The Year of the Flood. The long-awaited sequel to Oryx and Crake was published in 2009, and I could barely contain my excitement when I held my copy for the first time. Now, my test of a good book is this: if after browsing the first paragraph I turn to the next page without realising, I am committed to taking it home with me. However, The Year of the Flood did not draw me in. I did not suddenly lose all contact with the outside world to be immersed in Atwood’s prose. In fact, it took me several attempts to finish it with, I think, two other books in between. Of course, I had to finish it: this was unquestionable. I am a devoted Atwood fan and therefore I go with the rough and the smooth. I am loyal. But I will not refrain from dissuading people from buying this book.
The initial reason for my lack of engagement with the story was the structure of flitting from Ren to Toby without depth or insight, interspersed with the banal and time-wasting songs from the Gardeners’ hymn book. After the 6th song I just skipped them. I felt completely disconnected from the characters, caring not one bit about their plight. There were few additions to the world of Snowman, with the pigoons still wandering about and the weather being predictably bad. This was now boring. Atwood took us through the history of the Gardeners, introducing us to the world of the pleeblands that existed outside Jimmy’s secure compounds while he was growing up. Although I appreciated a little background and a fleshing out of this new world, I felt there was little depth added by continuing the same line. The characters lacked personality, they were heartless, aimless, dispassionate. I knew nothing about Toby’s motivations; nothing at all about AdamOne: his background, his personality, his looks for goodness sake!; and nothing about the soul of Ren, her sense of self, her raw sexuality, her inspiration. The one thing that has kept me hooked to Atwood’s prose since I was 17 was glaringly absent: the humanity. I am utterly disappointed, and quietly concerned about the next contribution from the Canadian. I think I will learn my lesson from this whole episode: when her next novel is announced, I think I’ll be a little more patient before I go diving in to the first page.