Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

flood

Yippee! It wasn’t long after I finished Oryx and Crake before I got my hands on The Year of the Flood – the second instalment in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. Published six years after Oryx and Crake, it seemed Atwood felt there was a little more backstory to be explored in Jimmy and Crake’s surreal world, so, as I was expecting, the story jumped back to the beginning. Instead of focusing on Jimmy again, The Year of the Flood tells the life stories of two women: Toby, a woman raised in the ‘pleeblands’ (the bottom of the pile, so to speak) and trapped as a sex worker before joining a vegan and naturalistic cult, the God’s Gardeners, and Ren, a much younger woman who joins the same cult as a child and grows up happily within it, before leaving with her emotionally distant mother and eventually turning to sex work herself. Sounds pretty dark, and parts of it were. Oryx and Crake ends on a cliffhanger, and I knew that the story would eventually line up to that; not quite a continuation, but giving the pivotal scene at the end of Oryx and Crake a little more context.

Overall, it’s a closer look at the dystopian world Jimmy, Crake and Oryx were born and grew up in. As the two protagonists of the book are female, it provides an interesting insight into how women are treated in such a world, which isn’t given too much attention in Oryx and Crake, what with the plot mostly following Jimmy’s point of view. Plus, Jimmy had the privilege of growing up in a world where his parents were well-off and worked within the structure of the government; in TYotF we see what it’s like for those on the other side, how the poor living in the pleeblands cope and how they gain relief in a seedy and dystopian world. At times, the two women’s stories were quite horrifying – particularly Toby’s. I found myself getting quite upset by it, which is credit to Atwood, who paints a very real, very sympathetic picture.

Some of the characters who pop up in passing in Oryx and Crake are given their due backstory here. The best example is Amanda Payne, first introduced in Oryx and Crake as an artsy girlfriend Jimmy lived with briefly after graduating from university, here much more a significant character: Ren’s best friend who also joins the Gardeners as a young girl. We also learn much more about the ‘police force’ that popped up in Oryx and Crake: a sinister and corrupt entity. In O&C we remember them hounding Jimmy for information about his mother, resorting to rather perverse methods to gain information from him – he accepted this rather matter-of-factly, but admittedly he and Crake were integrated with them, living in the ‘Compounds’ with the government, scientisits, and general leaders of the dystopian society. As I had hoped for, The Year of the Flood goes into a little more detail about where Jimmy’s mother actually went (though, it turns out, it’s nowhere of any particular importance).

The problem with books like this is that once you spend so long identifying with particular characters it becomes difficult to connect with the situation through the eyes of different individuals. I found myself missing Jimmy and Crake almost painfully, particularly Jimmy. They do pop up in the story a fair bit as the book progresses, but we never see too much or see the world through Jimmy’s perspective again. The plot gave me a better sense of their age: the ‘Flood’ (what the Gardeners name the apocalypse) is described to take place in Year 25, coincidentally the age of Ren and Amanda, which would make Jimmy and Crake around 27 or 28 when society breaks down (I was on the right lines after all).

As the plot progressed, I lost interest in the two protagonists quite considerably. They seemed rather generic: I didn’t get a sense of much emotion out of them compared to how interesting Jimmy was in Oryx and Crake. Their portrayal also bothered me; Atwood is praised for successfully using the opportunity to flesh out female characters after their rather 2D representation in O&C, but the women here seem to have little character scope beyond their relationships with men – particularly Ren, who is shoehorned in as one of Jimmy’s old girlfriends. This felt VERY tacked on: Ren is supposedly a childhood friend of Jimmy’s and then a teenage girlfriend, but there is no mention of her in O&C (or if there is, it is very much in passing, with none of Jimmy’s teenage conquests having any particularly importance). This obvious inclusion is worsened by Jimmy supposedly suffering from his failed teenage romance throughout his life – we know this from what his other girlfriends tell Ren (including Amanda) – which makes little sense when we know what a cad Jimmy is with women in O&C (though, to be fair, Ren suspects he is simply lying to them all).

Despite being frustrated by how pathetically attached Ren was to Jimmy, it was somehow painfully accurate, too; I recognised the heartache Ren experienced a little too well, which might have been what turned me off it. As humans, do we have a willingness to avoid closure from a relationship, and is that one of the more pathetic aspects of our nature? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s why I hated it so much. We want to see literary our protagonists glossily strong and shameless, not suffering from the same damaged pride and pathetic pining we all do.

I got to the end very impatiently to reach the closing scene of Oryx and Crake, just so Jimmy could come back into the story properly (and, with any luck, we might go pack into his POV). We end on the same cliffhanger as O&C. So, Goodreads: four stars (not as good as Oryx and Crake, but very enjoyable nonetheless). How will it all conclude in MaddAddam? You’ll have to wait and see.

[Coming next: Beloved by Toni Morrison]

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North cover

I read this at around Christmastime last year; it’s an Australian novel that won the 2014 Booker, so it was on the gift list, of course. Got to admit, I’d never heard of Flanagan before I read this. I have since attempted one of his earlier books, which was so overwritten I couldn’t stomach it. So how come The Narrow Road to the Deep North caused such a stir? I confess: I had a bit of a love / hate relationship with this one, particularly with the cheesy writing – it was only when I got to the end did I realise what a powerful impact it had had on me, and I noticed how bloody miserable I was to finish it.

The plot follows Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who becomes a Prisoner of War on one of the infamous Burma death railways in 1943. The story is not told chronologically but instead opens on Dorrigo as an old man, reflecting on his life. There is a lot of detail about his experience in the POW camp, with flashbacks to Evans’s earlier life and romance with his uncle’s young wife. Flanagan supposedly based the war plot points on his own father’s experience as a Japanese POW and wrote the novel as a tribute to him, which added an element of authenticity to the very jarring scenes (unfortunately, Flanagan’s dad died before the book was published). It was these sections, in particular, that were intensely moving, powerfully written and evocative, and also what drew me to Dorrigo as a protagonist – probably one of the best I’ve come across (for reasons I can’t put my finger on).

It’s a shame, then, that we had to endure the dodgy romance running alongside it. Dorrigo’s affair with his uncle’s wife Amy was occasionally so overdone it made me cringe, reading like bad erotica; it’s probably no accident that it made it into the shortlist for the Bad Sex Awards 2014 (though, to be honest, to be shortlisted for both the Booker and the Bad Sex Awards for the same book is an achievement any author with half a sense of humour would be proud of). At times the romance WAS written well – particularly in the early days, when both Dorrigo and Amy are torn between paralysing sexual tension and the implications of acting on it – but as the plot continued, it got worse and worse. Thankfully, these questionable areas were compensated by the quality of the POW camp sections, which were often so absorbing it was hard to put the novel down.

I’m unsure what it was about Dorrigo Evans that made him such a captivating protagonist. I certainly didn’t connect with him at the beginning, when we see him struggling under the weight of being a revered war hero (a title he doesn’t think he deserves), and being unfaithful to his wife. He is a flawed protagonist, but as the book progresses, it’s hard to dispute how much he did for his fellow prisoners in their terrible circumstances, using a combination of highly refined surgical skills, courage, and, well, common decency. After emerging from the camp, Dorrigo seems to find more fulfilment in suffering and trauma, which is perhaps an inevitable post-war attitude. His significant relationship with Amy happened prior to his time in the Burma death railway, and it made me wonder if the relationship would have had as much meaning had he found her afterwards. Indeed, they do cross paths years later, but neither choose to speak to the other – too much has passed since their affiar. Dorrigo is by no means the exclusive focus of the novel; Flanagan inhabits the minds of everyone involved, from fellow prisoners to Japanese officers, exploring the mind and mentality behind each individual.

It’s probably fairly morbid of me but I connected to Dorrigo the most during the times when he was suffering. There was one powerful instance in the camp when he is ordered to confirm a certain number of men are fit for work (read: fit for exhausting labour) when, in fact, the majority of men can barely stand up. As he haggles with the numbers, he is forced to hold up an ill man whilst being repeatedly slapped in the face for downright insisting (with his Hippocratic Oath in mind, no doubt) that the men’s health be protected. He’s concentrating so hard on standing upright, on keeping his weight balanced, on holding the man while feeling the painful blows again and again – it’s a shocking scene, and it’s easy for the reader to very intensely connect with Dorrigo.

The plot contained the occasional twist or surprise, but generally the structure meant you were expecting most of what was to come, and in that way it became a little more painful, perhaps. By the end I was a little bit obsessed with it. I strongly recall that moment of finishing it – at my sister’s house, which must have been close to a year ago – and feeling a great sense of despair, which, despite my horrendously long reading list, is a feeling I don’t have very often.

So, on Goodreads, it got four stars. Not the full five, owing to the dodgy romance, but you can be sure this is one story that will stay with me for a while.

[Coming next: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood]

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