I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Year of the Flood, and I’ll gush about it. When I started the book, I hadn’t realized it related to her earlier novel of dystopia, Oryx and Crake. While I’m a fan of her novels and poetry, the opening of Oryx and Crake did not grab me, and at the time, I was looking for a new novel to teach in my college English classes, so I moved on, discovering and using Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which worked perfectly. I’ll be using The Year of the Flood in my classes now. It’s that good.
Some years ago, I'd taught Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to great results, but now there are Cliff's Notes for it. I want to use books where the students just have to read the book and think for themselves. I do not grade poorly if they misunderstand something. I just want them writing and analyzing. This new book should blow them away.
The Year of the Flood takes place sometime in the near future. Corporations are in charge of most things, and there’s now a huge divide between the haves and have-nots. People with money live in gated parts of cities and the rest of the people have to fend for themselves in the pleeblands, run-down parts of the city where violence is a big issue. Criminals are sent to a prison called Painball, where they fight for their lives. If they live, they are let out, supposedly warned. If they die, so be it. Thus, there’s not a large prison population, and the most violent criminals get to roam the streets more often than not.
The book opens just after the flood—a Waterless Flood, but that’s not explained. Few people are left alive on Earth. We follow one of the survivors, Toby, and then we go back in time a few decades before the flood. You follow the story with Toby as she joins God's Gardeners to hide out from her daily rapist, and there we also meet one of the teenagers in the cult, Ren, who later leaves and becomes a sex worker at SeksMart. God’s Gardeners, run by a man named Adam One, is a back-to-Earth movement that has predicted the coming Waterless Flood. They are learning to survive on their own, under the radar of the powers-that-be.
What's interesting is we follow Toby in third person and Ren in first person. Normally, such a POV shift would drive me nuts, but I didn't notice it until I was nearly done with the book. The end is one where you expect there's more on the next page, but there's nothing on the next page. So you again read the ending and nod and wonder. I love it.
Atwood's view of North America is dryly wicked. For example, she mentions how a foreign corporation east of Europe kidnapped a top executive from an American corporation, and, "The Corps over there were always trying to poach on our Corps -- their undercover thugs were even more cut-throat than ours, and they had an advantage because they were better at languages and could pretend to be immigrants. We couldn't do that to them because why would we immigrate there?"
Atwood has as much fun naming things as does J.K. Rowling. Witness the companies HelthWyzer and CryoJeenyus, and the AnooYou Spa. There are the gene-spliced new creatures, such as the rakunks and liobams. The big company that runs everything is CorpSeCorps, which, with the word “corpse” in it, gives you a sense of what Atwood thinks of large companies.
I'm not a fan of cults, yet as I'm watching the craziness of all the oil in the gulf and the fact that we as American's burn up nearly a fifth of the world's oil and drive monster cars still as if it's all endless, Adam One starts making sense. This book makes sense.
With so many ideas in the novel, I can already picture some of my students, most of whom are not readers, feeling as if they're Columbus, finding a new land. That’s my goal as a professor of English: to show that reading is not just for English majors but is a medium that that takes all people to new places.
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