Margaret Atwood in Edinburgh

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

Her latest novel, The Year of the Flood, centres around two women, Toby and Ren, each trying to resist the conclusion that she is the Flood’s last survivor. These women experience flashbacks which combined re-tell the years leading up to the disaster.

Separated now, they 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.

In this world, the employees of pharaceutical companies (such as HelthWyzer) live in secured Compounds, while the seedy ‘pleeblands’ outside are left to the corrupt governance of the military CorpsSeCorps. The Gardeners’ commune is in the pleeblands.

The Gardeners’ spiritual head is Adam One, who was played by the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, in a wonderfully wacky book launch in St John’s Church, Edinburgh. The Gardeners’ hymns (which are threaded through the novel) and readings from the book were performed by singers and actors, 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’.

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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 Edinburgh Book Festival audience that evening – ‘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. It is as though 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. Though all three are deserted by their biological families and form protective shells, Atwood penetrates the psychologies of these two women in a way she doesn’t with Jimmy. As a result, I know them better, or at least understand their unknowable-ness.

Though Atwood didn’t 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’.

‘Maybe sadness was a kind of hunger,’ [Toby thought, on smelling bone-stock soup like that her mother used to make before she died] ‘Maybe the two went together.’ This world is described in the language of the broken characters it has created.

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Critics argue over whether Atwood writes ‘science fiction’. She prefers the term ‘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 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.

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Follow Margaret Atwood’s tour blog and tweets!

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on September 15, 2009.

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