The Year of the Flood

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel would be a polemic if it wasn’t also such a mesmerizing read. The Year of the Flood takes place in the same near-future North America—destroyed by ecological disaster, man-made pandemic and soul-deadening pop culture—that served as the setting for 2003’s Oryx and Crake. The two female protagonists of Flood are, however, new: Toby, a sardonic and stoic herbalist holed up in a former luxury spa, and lovelorn Ren, a young prostitute and trapeze artist locked away from contagion at a brothel called Scales and Tails. Atwood’s inventiveness here is matched by her characters’ survival skills: Toby, for instance, survives by eating the spa’s facial treatments.

Spending much of the novel in isolation, both characters weave compellingly between their pasts and the present. Both women belonged to the God’s Gardeners, an eco-cult with anachronistically formal hymns (“We cannot always trace Your path / Through Monkey and Gorilla, / Yet all are sheltered underneath / Your Heavenly Umbrella”) and a strict catechism of no-impact hippie practices that prove increasingly practical as Flood progresses.

Upon finally venturing into the world, Toby and Ren initially find little but sexual violence and genetically engineered freak-species such as pigoons and rattunks (though Flood is a stand-alone book, readers would benefit from reading Oryx’s scientific explanations for how such beasts came into existence). While we may hope that the women’s ability to navigate this landscape will keep them safe, Atwood doesn’t offer comfort—to her characters or the reader. Flood’s relentlessly fabulous inventions and despondent predictions become almost unbearable, especially told in such gorgeously trenchant prose. In this way, the book recalls Atwood’s 1985 masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale. Sadly, the author still seems to think that feminism will be dead in the dystopian future. Or maybe this reader is ignoring Atwood’s most chilling and furious point: Politics won’t matter when all is scorched earth.—Elizabeth Isadora Gold

Atwood reads Oct 27 at the 92nd Street Y.

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By Margaret Atwood. Doubleday, $26.95.