The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “The Year of the Flood”

The religious movement at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale , Margaret Atwood’s classic work of speculative fiction, is terrifying-a misogynistic, totalitarian, inquisitorial nightmare that manages to swallow the American government with astonishing ease.

The religious movement in her new novel, The Year of the Flood , is decidedly more benign. They’re a relatively marginal sect of eco-freaks called “God’s Gardeners,” who sing gentle hymns about animals and vegetables as they tend their urban rooftop gardens. They wear drab clothes, make their own soap, and get “composted” when they die. The Gardeners have been prophesying a “Waterless Flood” for years now, and when it finally comes-in the form of a plague, nestled within a cleverly-engineered contraceptive pill-two of their former members find themselves stranded, each of them unsure whether anyone else has survived.

If you’re not normally a fan of futuristic fiction, don’t be turned off by the goofy phrases in the flap copy. (“Bioartist?” “Eco-fighter?” “Painballers?” Don’t even get me started on the animal-themed sex club, “Scales and Tails.”) Like The Handmaid’s Tale before it, The Year of the Flood is ultimately the story of tough, solitary women fighting to survive a hostile world. It’s also richer and more textured than Oryx and Crake , Atwood’s 2003 novel, with which it shares a setting and many of the same characters. Eerie and slightly chilly, it’s the perfect novel for the start of fall.

NB: As part of her book tour, Atwood has put together a performance piece that includes dramatic readings from the novel, plus musical performances of God’s Gardeners’ hymns. And, lest you think that sustainability is purely a literary conceit for Atwood, her blog promises that in each city, “local singers and actors will take part, which will lower the carbon footprint.”

The U.S. leg of Atwood’s tour begins Oct. 4, in Denver.