Margaret Atwood - The Year of the Flood

This article is from 2009.

Margaret Atwood - The Year of the Flood

Author launches new work at Edinburgh Book Festival

The Flood which Margaret Atwood brings to an already soggy Charlotte Square gardens is, in fact, a Waterless one. It is not sent by a punitive, Old Testament God but rather by scientists of the near future playing Him.

Two isolated women, Toby and Ren, each trying to resist the conclusion that she is the last survivor, experience flashbacks which combined re-tell the years leading up to the Flood. Separated now, these two were once both members of the God’s Gardeners, an eco-religious cult who, as well as believing evolution to be God’s ‘ingenious device for instilling humility in Man’, also prophesied such a pandemic.

The Gardeners’ spiritual head is Adam One, who was played by the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, in a wonderfully wacky book launch on Sunday afternoon. The Gardeners’ hymns (which are threaded through the novel) and readings from the book were performed by singers and actors in St John’s Church, with Margaret Atwood as narrator. The hymns were set to suitably happy-clappy music, and the former Bishop’s part-leopard print, part-tartan outfit was made of ‘recycled junk’.

The Gardeners populate the same ‘near future’ dystopia as the characters in Atwood’s 2003, Booker-nominated Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood is not its sequel, but – as she told a packed Charlotte Square audience on Sunday night – ‘the meanwhile’.

For me, The Year of the Flood is the better book. Though ingenious and disturbing, there is something empty at the heart of Oryx and Crake. In it, our access to the emotionally stunted, ‘Compound’-raised protagonist Jimmy is invisibly barred. ‘He’d grown up in walled spaces, and then he’d become one. He had shut things out’, offers Atwood by way of explanation. Toby and Ren are altogether more human creations, and ones with whom one wants to spend time. Though all three are deserted by their biological families and form protective shells, Atwood spends more energy penetrating the psychologies of these female protagonists than she does Jimmy’s. As a result, one knows them better, or at least understands their unknowable-ness.

Though Atwood did not know she would return to the world of living ‘Compounds’ and lawless ‘pleeblands’ when Oryx and Crake was published – things would have been ‘a whole lot easier’ if she had, she remarked – its images resurface in The Year of the Flood. Among the post-disaster debris both Jimmy then Ren notice a diary with handwriting ‘melting’ off the page.

Such humanity is at the centre of The Year of the Flood. Its style is plain but affecting. Toby’s and Ren’s experiences are narrated as ‘She’ and ‘I’ respectively, and they are not, Atwood explains, ‘word people’. This society – where pharmaceutical companies run their employees’ ‘Compounds’ and the ‘CorpSeCorps’ terrorize the unprotected ‘pleeblands’ – is told in the language of the broken characters it has created.

Atwood maintains not to write science- but ‘speculative’-fiction. Her work, she says, deals in what could ‘conceivably’ happen or is already happening: the publication of Oryx and Crake coincided with the outbreak of SARS, and The Year of the Flood with escalating swine flu cases.

But The Year of the Flood is finally hopeful. And it is hope that links book and book tour – a 36-stop ‘green’ tour of which Scotland was the first. Twenty of these appearances will be, as in St John’s, ‘hybrid’ events – both book launch and BirdLife International fundraiser. Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson are joint honorary presidents of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club; and she has (written an article) about the tour for The Times.

Atwood believes that when people are aware of a problem and aware it is solvable, they are willing to act. She assured her Sunday evening audience that the RSPB were delighted with afternoon event’s fundraising and petition-signing. The Gardeners, too, would have been pleased.

The Year of the Flood (Bloomsbury)

The Year of the Flood Event took place at St John’s on 30 August, in association with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. Margaret Atwood’s Book Festival talk was on 30 August, chaired by Jenny Brown.

Follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter @MargaretAtwood

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