From a sheer narrative perspective, Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Year Of The Flood has little reason to exist. It’s set in the same world as her 2003 novel Oryx And Crake, and covers a roughly equivalent time period, before and after a manufactured cataclysm that devastates her dystopian future civilization. It provides few insights into the nature of that cataclysm, or what follows on a larger scale, and it ends on an uncertain, pregnant moment, one almost as open-ended as the conclusion of her classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s little more than a set of character studies set in an already well-established world. It isn’t a particularly necessary book, even to the extent that fiction can ever be called necessary. And yet it’s a marvelously absorbing novel, an after-the-fact, off-in-the-margins adventure whose unclear purpose creates an unsettling sense that anything might happen: The main story Atwood had to tell about this setting has already been told, and the characters in Year Of The Flood aren’t central to it, so there’s no reason to believe they’ll make it through the novel alive, let alone emotionally or spiritually intact.
Atwood focuses on two characters, Ren and Toby, who both survived the genetically engineered disease that wiped out much of humanity at the end of Oryx And Crake. The two women—Ren young, resigned, callow, and living as a dancer and courtesan in a high-end brothel, and Toby older, tougher, more resilient, and crazier, surviving on her own in an abandoned beauty spa—share a past in an environmentalist splinter group called God’s Gardeners, a cultish association of conscientious objectors in an oppressively technology-driven, corporate-ruled future. Atwood divides her chapters between Toby and Ren, jumping between their post-pandemic lives and pre-pandemic pasts, and adding in a series of homilies by God’s Gardeners founder Adam One, who talks about the “Waterless Flood” that will soon rise up to end arrogant humanity and give the world back to patient Mother Nature. She even contributes a set of surprisingly touching God’s Gardeners hymns in praise of nature’s simple virtues.
And in the process, she builds a complicated, non-judgmental portrait of cults, revealing why lost souls might find them comforting and alluring, and how they might support and nurture people with nowhere else to go, but also delving into the blinkered groupthink and unhealthy world-denial that comes with them. As with Handmaid’s Tale, she also offers some cautionary suggestions about the more unsettling directions where modern science and society might be taking us. More than that, though, she builds up characters who are so nuanced and sympathetic that they hold attention even when they’re doing little more than living day to day.
As is so often the case, Atwood writes bluntly and simply, without spelling out her intentions or giving much away. The style is sometimes frustrating, as Ren and Toby generally remain opaque even in chapters rendered from their point of view. But it’s often a relief the way Atwood avoids cliché by leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions, especially when it comes to Toby’s unrequited crush on a fellow Gardener, which is spelled out almost totally in her actions, rather than via tedious or overwrought descriptions of her romantic pain. Similarly, the book is all low-key incident, as Toby and Ren move toward their dangerous, unknown future, and Atwood slowly reveals their past without dictating what readers should make of it. Oryx And Crake created a world, destroyed it, and revealed the beginnings of a new one; The Year Of The Flood is just a scattered portrait of incidental lives lived in the corners of that earlier book. But it’s vivid and remarkably drawn, a striking supplement to what was a striking stand-alone novel. Oryx in no way called for a companion volume, but this is a worthy one nonetheless.