The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood (New York: Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 2009).
Jacket summary: "The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God's Gardeners -- a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life -- has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God's Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.
"Have others survived? Ren's bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers.
"Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/ lamb blends, the Mo'hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move, but they can't stay locked away."
Opening line: "In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise."
My take: Due to its strange and unsettling setting, this book took a few chapters to reel me in, but was well worth the effort. Fascinating, funny, depressing, and ultimately hopeful, though not all at once.
We begin with the two principals and where they find themselves as the story opens, in Year 25. (Pay attention to the date stamps on the chapter headings; this is another of those stories that jumps around temporally, and if you don't catch this right away, you'll be very confused.) Toby and Ren have survived what's been dubbed the Waterless Flood (a superplague that apparently takes no prisoners) inadvertently, by virtue of their isolation: Ren, an exotic dancer/ call girl, because she's been shut up in Scales and Tails' "Sticky Zone" until her medical tests come back clean; and Toby, an herbalist/ beekeeper, because the God's Gardeners have sent her underground to protect her (and them) from an incredibly persistent Bad Guy from her past. And to begin with, that's all we -- and they -- know. Neither knows for sure how long her food supplies will hold out or who else among her acquaintances might be left alive, though the idealistic Ren hopes desperately for news of her friend Amanda.
From here, the story jumps around to fill us in on who Toby and Ren are, and how they got to the point at which the book opens. Both came from relatively comfortable, even bourgeois, beginnings, but saw their situations go south almost overnight. Toby, penniless and on the run after her parents' deaths, lands a job at a SecretBurger (so named because you never know exactly what kind of animal protein you're going to get), but finds herself "favored" by the aforementioned Bad Guy, whose M.O. is to slowly brutalize his chosen victims to death. Just as her time is running out, a well-timed scuffle with the God's Gardeners leads to her being adopted and even embraced by the sect (though she's never quite sure just how deeply she believes). Here, her path crosses that of the young Ren, whose mother abandoned their middle-class suburban life to cast her lot with the Gardeners' resident bad-ass, Zeb.
The complex tale of how the two get from A to B is engaging in itself, and peppered with background details that are both funny and disturbing. The shadowy CorpsSeCorp, which serves as both police force and government, wholly corporate-controlled and wholly corrupt, is but one example; the omnipresent Happicuppa franchise, eschewed by the Gardeners even though it does make one darned irresistible cup of coffee, is a lighter one. I also enjoyed the God's Gardeners hymns printed at the beginning of each chapter (real churchgoers will notice after awhile that there are only one or two tunes you need to sing 'em all), the saints and feast days, and the other finely-rendered minutae that give the sect -- somewhere between right-wing fundamentalists without the right wing, and the holier-than-though organic vegan movement familiar to anyone in a college town.
Read Year of the Flood. It's a good one.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.