The Year of the Flood is the story of Toby and Ren, two women separated by circumstances, but united in one thing: they are, or they believe themselves to be, the last people on earth. Toby, older, is hiding out at the irksomely-named upmarket spa where she used to work: Anyooo yooo (apologies if I’ve put too many ‘o’s in there – my copy is hidden in the newly-unpacked clutter). Ren is stuck in the ‘sticky zone’ of the exotic dancer’s club (‘Scales N’ Tails’) she also used to work at before the end of the world. The sticky zone is a decontamination suite for girls who inadvertently came into skin-or-blood contact with a client.
Both women knew each other from their previous lives in the Gardeners’ cult, a charmingly eco-friendly apocalypse-now sort of scientific-Christian hybrid that managed to instill in them both an instinct for survival. Throughout the novel, we see their lives in flash-back and are given sermons by the cult’s leader, Adam one, along with hymns from the Gardeners’ handbook. The sermons detail the particular feast days dedicated to saints of science, and the story of the gardeners’ lives in the pre-fall world of economic and environmental degradation just a nudge worse than our own. While the gardeners’ preach (mostly to themselves) a message of frugal self-sustainability, the inner city in which they live is wracked with crime, and the government of their country playing second fiddle to a mass of corporations who view ethics as a cosmetic issue. And the field of genetics a free-market playground.
The upshot of this are that there are creatures wandering the overheated Earth with names like Rakunk and Liolam, skunk/racoons and lion/sheep hybrids respectably. Likewise, there is a sheep with ludicrously long human-like hair in trendy pastel colours. I don’t entirely know why, as it seems natural hair wigs could be grown just as easily than full animals. But Atwood revels in these oddities. She also is fond of strange and sometimes cringy names for new products and activities. Happicappuchino, Painball and secretburger as names do sound feasible, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy reading them. It’s the ipad/Wii U school of corporate tin-earedness.
In that way and in others, I am reminded of J.G. Ballard’s Hello America, which I read last year I think. Post-apocalyptic novels set in the North American post-urban landscape, with slightly dateable details (here I am being hopeful that we will move beyond corporate idiocies, perhaps I am misjudging things). Atwood’s vision is much more fully realised and believably horrifying. Her religious and philosophic explorations add welcome depth, though the book is rather let down by the end, which I won’t spoil here. Nothing to do with the fact it is part of a trilogy, I should add. Just that a certain unlikeliness of things creeps in.
Overall, a good start to my first forays into apocalyptic fiction. What next? The new library two minutes down the road awaits…