Fashion and Fiction: Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

published 2009

Year of the Flood

[A dystopian future: Toby – a woman - has escaped a dangerous and violent situation: she has been rescued by a separatist group called the Gardeners]

They came to an early modern red-brick factory building. .. The children ran round to the side of the building and began climbing up the fire-escape. Once they’d reached the rooftop, each of them said, “Welcome to our Garden” and hugged her…

There were adults too, holding out their hands in greeting – the women in dark baggy dresses, the men in coveralls – and here, suddenly, was Rebecca. “You made it sweetheart,” she said. “I told them! I just knew they’d get you out.”

The Garden wasn’t at all what Toby had expected from hearsay. It wasn’t a baked mudflat strewn with rotting vegetable waste – quite the reverse. She gazed around it in wonder: it was so beautiful, with plants and flowers of many kinds she’d never seen before.

observations: Last week I went to an event at the V & A in London: Margaret Atwood discussing Fashion and Fiction in conversation with Rosie Goldsmith – could there BE a more Clothes in Books event?

Margaret Atwood now

It was fascinating, just as you would expect. Atwood, a grande dame of literature now, had supplied a set of photos depicting her clothing choices from toddlerhood till now, and that made for a terrific slideshow background to the talk . (You can see some of them on her website, which is where these photos of her came from.) She was as funny and clear and clever as you would expect, and Rosie Goldsmith did a wonderful sympathetic job directing the conversation. The sell-out audience were hugely enthusiastic – an all-round great evening. Even better, there are going to be more events like this in the future. I can’t wait.

One of the things Atwood made clear was how important her characters’ clothes choices were. And she mentioned as a child stuffing her school skirt into the legs of her snowsuit – something that the heroine of Cat’s Eye also does.

She talked about the clothes in Handmaid’s Tale and said that red was the colour of passion in her books. The Handmaid’s Tale is an extraordinary book, completely compelling, and shocking, with (as Atwood says) nothing in it which is impossible – it is one of my favourite books of all time.

Margaret Atwood in 1967

So though books about a dark dystopian world are not my usual thing, I have read her Year of the Flood, part of a trilogy of interlocking books about a future world. Interestingly, she said at the V&A event that in a dystopian future following a pandemic, there would be no shortage of clothes: so many dead people, there would be a lot of clothes left over….

Anyway. The story alternates between two women. Toby, above, loses all her family, and ends up in a dark economy, working at a very dubious burger bar. She is rescued from her vicious abusive boss by God’s Gardeners, a cult-like movement, and lives happily with them for some time. Ren, the other main character, is a child in the commune: her mother, Lucerne, is a flakey character:
Today she was in the kitchen area, wearing her dark-coloured Gardener dress, and she was actually cooking. She’d been making that effort more often lately. Also she was keeping our living space tidier.
The group’s way of living contrasts sharply with the over-stimulated, sexual, violent world outside: they are trying to create a better and more natural life. Toby has a friend, Pilar, who reminded me of Anna Madrigal in the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City books.

Ren grows up to work in a sex/dance club.

We follow their stories, knowing that all this is going to come to an end: both of them are going to be rare survivors of a plague, known as the Dry Flood.

The writing was wonderful – Atwood can ignite your imagination so you can see and make sense of what she describes. The other two books in the trilogy are Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam.

Last year I read another book about a world destroyed by plague – Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11, which I absolutely loved, and would highly recommend.

The top picture, from the US National Archives, shows award-winning gardeners in Montana in the 1920s.


  1. Lucky you, Moira, to have gotten to see Atwood speak, and especially so considering what she said about the role of clothes in her books. I'm sure it was a fantastic time. As to this book, I'm not usually one to reach for dystopian fiction. But there are a few that have been quite good;;and although I confess I've not read this one, I can see why you were drawn in.

    1. Yes I was lucky, I so enjoyed seeing her talk. And it really was my kind of event. I think we all have our preferred genres, but a favoured writer can make us step outside that.

  2. Dear Clothes in Books (Moira?!) - thank you for being there on Friday 13th (!) and understanding what Fashion and Fiction is about. And thank you for this super Blog! Linda Grant is my next guest on September 29th.

    1. Yes it's Moira, and thank YOU for organizing such a great and popular event. Linda Grant is another of my favourite writers so I will be delighted to be there in September.

  3. What a perfect event for you. I would have enjoyed it too, I am sure.

    It has been years and years since I read any Margaret Atwood. I know I read The Handmaid's Tale, but don't know if I read anything else. I have thought of reading more by her... possibly the MaddAddam Trilogy, just because of the subject matter. Being Canadian helps, useful for the challenge.

    1. She writes so much, and in so many different styles, that there's something for everyone.

  4. Moira, I have not read Margaret Atwood but after your wonderful post about the celebrated author, I will read her work. I like reading about a dystopian world (thanks to Thomas Hardy) as long as the story is realistic and not too dark or depressing. I liked the picture of the author in 1967 and can’t imagine how many books I’d finish reading in a similar environment.

    1. I know, isn't it a gorgeous setting! Atwood is someone I will always try, no matter how much her books vary. She stops me from being too narrow in my reading.

  5. Wow, that Atwood event really was tailor-made for you (sic) - not read the trilogy, yet (one lives in hope)

    1. Yes it really was, Sergio, and I appreciate the pun. And I'm glad there are so many people who agree with me about the importance of clothes in books....


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