“So if you were making the world, you’d make it better?” I said. Better than God, was what I meant. All of a sudden I was feeling pious […]. Like a Gardener.
“Yes,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I would.”
Ren talking to Glenn (aka Crake), The Year of the Flood, Atwood, pg.177
The second novel in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy relives the events of the terrible ‘Waterless Flood’ (the deadly and contagious plague that wipes out most of humankind). However, this time we see the events that unfold through the perspective of two female characters, Toby and Ren, who are/were both members of an eco-religious sect, the God’s Gardeners – familiar to us from Oryx and Crake.
Toby is an older woman, more akin to the harshness and cruelty of life, who was saved by the Gardeners from the hands of her violent and masochistic boss, Blanco. She works herself up to the rank of Eve Six – rather reluctantly, as she is neither fully immersed in the beliefs of Adam One and his Garderners nor is she fully against them – where she teaches the younger Gardeners lessons on the healing powers of herbs and potions. However, she is in constant danger of being discovered by Blanco and is assigned to work at one of the Anooyoo spas in order to physically alter her appearance. When we are first introduced to her it is Year Twenty-Five, the year of The Waterless Flood, as predicted by Adam One. She has survived by barricading herself inside the spa with a stash of food she has been saving up, despite her cynicism towards the Gardeners prediction.
The second narrator, Ren, formerly grew up with the eco-religious sect when her mother ran away from the compounds with one of the Gardener’s, Zeb, who is interestingly nick-named Mad Adam by the kids. She returns to the Compounds as a teenager after creating close ties to a fellow Garderner, Amanda (who we recognise from Oryx and Crake as one of Jimmy’s many girlfriends). In the Year Twenty-Five, Ren is now working as a trapeze artist in one of the more ‘upper-class’ sex clubs in the pleeblands. She survives as she is safely holed up in a seclusion zone after being bitten by one of her sex-crazed clients.
The novel works in a similar way to Oryx and Crake in that we start with the present, post-apocalyptic world, and slowly work backwards up to the ‘Waterless Flood’ through flashbacks. Toby and Ren’s narratives intricately link in and out of one another, as well as touching on major characters from the previous novel, Jimmy and Glenn. Although we don’t learn much more about Glenn and his motives, it is clear that he was already thinking about the perfection and alteration of the human species from a young age. He is obsessively interested in the beliefs of the Gardeners and begins to work with the more radical section, which has broken off from Adam One’s teachings and is headed by Mad Adam (Zeb), in his ‘Paradice Project’.
What I found most distressing, yet excellently executed, in Atwood’s The Year of the Flood is the over-sexualised and objectified position women play in this ‘speculative’ society. In Oryx and Crake women are presented as two-dimensional characters through Jimmy’s perspective. However, through the narratives of Toby and Ren they become much more real – they are women who are suffering from these stereotypical perceptions of female roles on a daily basis. When I think about Toby’s life – she becomes orphaned in her early twenties and is on the run from debtors who would most likely ‘farm’ her out for sex; she then finds herself in a position of sexual abuse from her boss, Blanco, who ‘demand[s] a thank you after every degrading act’ (pg.46) – it is a harrowing account of a woman burdened by her gender, who is only seen for her sexual uses. The same can be said for Ren who feels she has no choice but to work for Scales and Tales.
Furthermore, in times of financial need, Toby, before she is saved by the Gardeners, donates her eggs to ‘egg traders’:
She could only pull the egg stunt twice because the second time the needle had been infected. At that time the egg traders were still paying for treatment if anything went wrong; still, it took her a month to recover. When she tried a third time, they told her there were complications, so she could never donate any more eggs, or – incidentally – have any children herself.
The Year of the Flood, Atwood, pg.38
The detached manner in which this tale is recounted only adds to the trauma, which is lying beneath the surface of Toby’s hardened demeanor. Despite her reservations about Ren’s fragility and vulnerability when they finally find each other alive towards the end of the novel, Toby obviously cares for Ren as she is willing to risk her life to find Amanda, who has been kidnapped by Blanco’s sidekicks. It is this trio that Jimmy the Snowman stumbles across at the end of Oryx and Crake, which we view this time from Ren and Toby’s perspective. The final scene of The Year of the Flood, however, sees Blanco’s sidekicks unconscious and tied up, whilst Jimmy has been driven to insanity, and Amanda, who was once a strong and independent character, is unable to comprehend the abuse she has endured. It is only Toby and Ren who are able to keep it all together and to me, personally, they portray a sense of strength that is encouraging and hopeful. It is the women of this novel who, despite the continuous degradation they have suffered throughout their lives, are fighting for survival – for survival in this post-apocalyptic world.
However, whether this new beginning will be beneficial to women, in particular, and the human species, in general, is another matter. Maybe we will find out in Atwood’s new book MaddAddam or maybe we won’t. Either way, The Year of the Flood stands out as a spectacular novel, which makes you think seriously about the the consumerist, irresponsible and unequal world we live in.
Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing.. If other people began to discuss it, you turned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling.
The Year of the Flood, Atwood, pg. 284