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Due to both University reading and personal interest, I’ve found myself delving into the world of dystopian literature more than ever. Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood has become anew favourite of mine as I found myself flying through its 500 odd pages. Set during a period of biological catastrophe, The Year of the Flood is the second novel in a trilogy based on different angles of this make belief world. However, having not previously read Oryx and Crake, I could only interpret the novel as a standalone piece of fiction.
Reminiscent of Atwood’s own The Handmaid’s Tale and other dystopian novels such as A Clockwork Orange, the plot is packed with sexual violence and oppressive figures. With a page count of over 500 pages long, the two central characters have ample room to breathe, grow and let their personalities seep onto the pages. The reader watches Ren grow from child to adult as the plot forms a feeling of Bildungsroman. Her life is tumultuous and unforgiving as she experiences upper class life, an existence in the Pleeblands, and of course, the agricultural cult, ‘The gardeners’. She is emotional and it’s difficult to remove yourself from her pain as she is abandoned by her parents, loses her friends and suffers through a painstakingly long heartbreak.
Toby is arguably a character residing on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Feared by the children of ‘The Gardeners’, she is an extremely head strong and resourceful character. Orphaned as a teenager, she picks her way through low life jobs whilst forcing herself to make money in less than desirable ways. Her entire narrative is a sad and lonely one, filled with isolation and a lack of love. The moment she finds Ren in the Year 25 (which we were all anticipating) was the first time I felt like she was no longer on her own. Ren and Toby, however oppositional, are the perfect companions. Their mix of experience and their complimentary balance of emotions creates a partnership and level of camaraderie that I believe will continue long into their fictional future. Atwood’s mastery of these characters was sensational. I laughed, I cried, and I felt my heart break along with them. This is one of the few novels that I was mightily disappointed to see the back of.
When it comes to the dystopia genre, one of the most important things to consider is that it is not so much science fiction, but a potential reality. Atwood has always famously said that she does not want her writing to be referred to as science fiction due to her contextual influence’s roots in real life. The Handmaid’s tale famously echoes the Salem Witch trials, Biblical stories, ancient monachal practices and it’s not hard to see similar influences in her other novels. When reading The Year of the Flood I could sense the contextual influences of both feminist and eco critical movements from the worlds past and present. Equally, the corrupt patriarchal forces strongly echoed those we have seen around the world and we are no strangers to religious cults and barbarians.
Reading this novel in today’s climate whilst residing alongside the infamous COVID19 global pandemic, the idea of the ‘waterless flood’ can easily cause a few grimaces and raised eyebrows. Written over a decade ago, the parallels of nose masks and keeping distances from each other in order to protect yourself from germs and unsanitary living, sits uncomfortably on the chest. How many pandemics will we go through before we face an event comparable to the ‘waterless flood’? When will be unable to prevent the population dropping like flies? Atwood’s decision to leave out the key details and explanation into the nature of the disease until halfway through the narrative adds immensely to the unnerving build up of tension and feeling of unknown. The story behind the pandemic begins to slowly unravel as we are drip fed an insight into the nature of the waterless flood, and this does little to put us at ease as we sympathise with the character’s hardships and feel their pain.
One of the more ‘dystopian’ features of The Year of the Flood is the unique blend of original vocabulary that Atwood has created. The literary technique creates a barrier between the reader and the fictional world, removing any feeling of reality. I was quite interested in the inspiration behind the made-up words such as garboil, bimplants, but when breaking the syllables down, its not too difficult to work it out. I still can’t believe it took me nearly half the novel to work out that violet biolets meant toilets! The single changed letter clearly makes all the difference…
Despite Atwood’s rejection of the sci-fi label, the freaky words and animal hybrids (rakunk and bobkitten) does little to veer away from this label. It paints the society as apart from the one we are so familiar with today and slightly removes the possibility of our society facing a similar future. There is a lot we can take away from the novel and its warnings against unnatural experimentation and corrupt government. Atwood almost implements the features of a fable into the narrative with the moral possibly being based on leaving nature and wry science experiments alone. Well, it’s convinced me, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the other two novels in the trilogy.