This was such a gripping book! Although I found the plot difficult to follow in the beginning (had to go back every now and then to orient myself in the timeline), and the jargon a bit overwhelming, it really picked up speed in the second half, and kept me awake at night! I must have read more than 150 pages today. I’d call it a cross between science fiction and dystopia (although apparently Atwood doesn’t like her books being called sci-fi) – but such an interesting book, with many down-to-earth themes explored, and with many unexpected turns.
The book tells of an eco-religion called the God’s Gardeners. They live a vegetarian life on a rooftop retreat, avoiding money, chemicals and technology, and recycling everything they can. They pray regularly and mark numerous feast days – actually, the book is divided into chapters named after the saints remembered on those days. The world outside – the Exfernal – is awash with all sorts of crime and corruption and the Gardeners are expecting a Waterless Flood soon (they’re storing food in their Ararats – I like that). The plot is complicated, with the paths of many characters crossing, especially in the latter half. The language is rich and varied. We read the sermons of the Gardener leader often, followed by hymns. In the beginning, we’re not sure about what to make of the whole back-to-the-Nature Gardener thing – like, take it seriously or make fun of it. But their philosophy is wise – as the characters and the plot confirm – and sophisticated. An excerpt from a sermon:
“Serpent Wisdom – I propose – is the wisdom of feeling directly, as the Serpent feels vibrations in the Earth. The Serpent is wise in that it lives in immediacy, without the need for the elaborate intellectual frameworks Humankind is endlessly constructing for itself. For what in us belief and faith, in the other Creatures is inborn knowledge” (279).
Two favourite stanzas from a hymn:
The Deer at length forgives the Wolf
That tears his throat and drinks his blood;
His bones turn to soil, and feed,
The trees that flower and fruit and seed.
And underneath those shady trees
The Wolf will spend her restful days;
And then the Wolf in turn will pass,
And turn to grass the Deer will graze (510).
When you think of it, so much thinking has gone into the book. Atwood explains in the acknowledgments that, when writing the hymns, she was inspired by the poems of Blake and Bunyan, and a Christian hymn book. But still, all those details and everything…just impressive. The hymns have been set to music and you can listen to them at the book’s website.
The main three characters are female, with a few male secondary characters. (That reminded me of Out Stealing Horses, which is a rather male-dominated novel in contrast.) There’s romance involved, though I can’t really see the need for it, especially because that’s what brings in all the coincidence into the plot. And, the book made a change in my life. There are plenty of gruesome depictions of meat (like, part of a cat’s ear or a human’s nose sticking out from a burger) – I’ve never been a big meat-eater anyway, but I haven’t been eating any since I started reading the book (12 days now). I tried fish today, that’s not working either. I don’t know if it will last, and I know the medicine I’m taking to regulate my blood sugar is also putting me off food, but we’ll see…
I found many things wise and sophisticated in the novel, but it has a clearly North American worldview, and this (although from the mouth of a character) made me wince:
“I’d been at Martha Graham for almost two years when I got some terrible news. Lucerne called me and said that my biofather, Frank, had been kidnapped by a rival Corp somewhere to the east of Europe. The Corps over there were always trying to poach on our Corps – their undercover thugs were even more cut-throat than ours, and they had an advantage because they were better at languages and they could pretend to be immigrants. We couldn’t do that to them, because why would we immigrate there?” (350).
Still, a very good read, and an excellent summer book, especially recommended to anyone who’s interested in genetics, ecology and religion.