The first of the four (count 'em, four) books that I got for Christmas! I have _really_ been looking forward to Margaret Atwood's new novel since it is a continuation of the ideas introduced in her previous Oryx and Crake (which happens to be on my top 10 list of all time favorite books).
Oryx and Crake introduced readers to a world where the material and moral excesses of the present day were taken to the extreme (and, indeed, nearly to a conclusion) in the near future. Corporations (The Corps) attempt to control every aspect of people's lives. Chains such as HelthWyzer and AnooYoo push products and treatments that guarantee to make you into a better, healthier, more attractive person. Society is highly stratified and divided into those who live comfortably in the security of company compounds, and those who must fend for themselves on the rough streets (the pleebs).
It is in the midst of this world of excess where we find a group called the God's Gardeners in The Year of the Flood. The group, led by a guru-like figure named Adam One, has a theology that revolves around humans treating the Earth with the same reverence and respect that should be shown toward God. Members lead an extreme organic-vegetarian lifestyle: no eating the meat of other animals, no use of pesticides (even worms are picked off plants and gently set aside), only rough-spun garments from indigenous fibers are worn, bathing is infrequent, no use of electronics, etc. The group prepares hidden caches ('Ararats') against the day when the Waterless Flood will sweep the self-absorbed human race from the planet.
The novel alternates between the viewpoints of Toby, a senior member (an Eve) of the God's Gardeners, and Ren, a younger woman who joins the group as a girl when her mother takes up with one of the men. The majority of the book is told in flashbacks when Toby and Ren remember the various life incidents that led to their association with the group and their experiences while members. Both are eventually forced to part with the group and must learn to reintegrate into a society in which they are ill-equipped to fit in.
The book culminates with the coming of the Waterless Flood predicted by the God's Gardeners. This turns out to be the engineered epidemic unleashed by Crake in the previous book through widespread use of the BlyssPlus drug (a compound enhancing the act of sex). Both Toby and Ren survive and are reunited in the joint cause of finding other surviving God's Gardeners members.
The world of After the Flood is vivid and fully imagined. In between major sections of the novel, Atwood presents a short sermon by Adam One, followed by a hymn taken from the hymnbook of the God's Gardeners. These small details really add to the ambience of the story.
Alas, the book went by far too fast (as most of Atwood's seem to). I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I didn't find it quite as compelling as Oryx and Crake. While the Gardeners were fascinating, the overall plot was not as intricate or climactic as the previous novel. Also, I would certainly recommend reading Oryx and Crake before After the Flood to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how society evolves into the state in which we find it at the opening of After the Flood.