Novels aren’t often reviewed on websites like Celsias. But when Doubleday offered a review copy of Margaret Atwood’s latest, The Year of the Flood, it didn’t take long to say yes.
Atwood is a celebrated writer, but she’s also a concerned environmentalist and active supporter of conservation groups. This concern is reflected in her novel. It’s a story set in an indeterminate future in what may be the end time of humanity’s gradual destruction of its own life. The book doesn’t specify how things have come to this pass, but we can recognise consequences of tendencies already apparent in society today.
Such government as there is appears to be largely the province of shadowy corporations operating from gated housing compounds and employing a sinister and corrupt security force to protect their interests. Public squalor and insecurity marks the life of those outside the compounds, with street violence always threatening.
The population at large seems to be focused on the pleasures afforded by consumption. Commercial sex flourishes. Species extinction has proceeded apace, but so has the ingenious creation of new forms of life through genetic splicing. There is no systematic portrayal of these features in the novel, but they become apparent as the story unfolds.
God’s Gardeners are at the center of the story. They are an eco-religious group which has set itself to live ethically in the midst of this inhospitable environment. “Sweet but delusional creatures” is how they are described by one of the main female characters.
Their determined effort to live simply and naturally, their rooftop garden, their insecure lodging in derelict buildings constitute a kind of gentle human remnant in a coarsened heedless society. The sermons of Adam One their leader refresh the book regularly and are compulsively readable. “Ours is a fall into greed; why do we think that everything on Earth belongs to us, while in reality we belong to Everything.”
Biblical roots are combined with an affirmation of the oneness of all life and human kinship with the animal kingdom. A scientific awareness of life and the universe is woven into their religion. Their numerous saints are a roll call of those who have alerted us to ecological threats.
The hymns are a delight; Atwood acknowledges the influence of William Blake and John Bunyan as well as church hymn books in her writing of them. Oddity, humour, even perhaps the faintly ridiculous, are part of the mix, yet with a deft lightness of touch Atwood has created a religious group which for all its eccentricity compels reader attention and respect.
The two main characters are both members of God’s Gardeners. Toby joins them after they rescue her from the violent sexual predator who is her employer. Ren was with them for some years as a child but by the time of the Flood was a trapeze artist in an exclusive sex club. Both women survive the waterless Flood – some kind of viral plague – long expected by the Gardeners.
For a time they are each on their own, wondering if there are any other survivors of the human annihilation, but the later action of the book centres on the tenuous re-assembling of some from the Gardeners’ group. The stories of Toby and Ren are the main substance of the novel. Being female in the disintegrating society of their time gives each of their lives an extra precariousness, the handling of which is of major interest for the reader.
Engrossing though the book is, it’s not exactly pleasant to read about the destruction and possible end of humankind within the not too distant future. I imagine it’s not pleasant to write about it either. But Atwood, who was well-grounded in ecological matters in her childhood, is well aware of the environmental dangers in which we are placing ourselves and is herself engaged in various efforts to stay the destructive effects already under way. It is understandable that she should bring her writer’s imagination to bear on a scenario which she sees as an all too possible result of forces at work in our present day.
How does one read a book like this? The book itself makes the question partly redundant because it is so thoroughly engaging, in its characters, its setting and its story-telling. But afterwards what does one ponder?
Despair? Toby comes close to that at one point. “We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling…You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with.” It’s as well to see that in cold print, but one hopes it’s an option we’re not embracing yet.
Resolve? Where we decide I’m damned if I’m going to let things go on developing the way they are without putting up a fight and trying to awaken people to the reality of where we’re headed if we don’t change direction.
Affirmation? That there is a point to life and it lies somewhere in the direction of Adam One and his Gardeners. Interestingly Atwood in her afterword says that anyone wishing to use the hymns for amateur devotional or environmental purposes is more than welcome to do so. They have been set to music by singer and musician Orville Stoeber of California and the CD can be downloaded here. The novel ends with a mysterious company of many people approaching and singing as they come.
Big questions linger in the reader’s mind.
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