MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood – review

The third part of Atwood's dystopian trilogy is often lyrical, but ultimately indulgent and undisciplined

This is the third in Margaret Atwood's science fiction trilogy, which started with Oryx and Crake and progressed to The Year of the Flood. The title of the third, MaddAddam, you will notice, is a palindrome. There is plenty of wordplay to come.

This is life on a planet devastated by a pandemic, by rising water and many other catastrophes. Nobody knows just how many people are still alive. Out there in this dystopian world are the giant pigoons – carnivorous pigs, once bred to provide organs for humans, now feral – and the Painballers, who are – I think – Mad Max figures, up to no good. Rape and abuse of women are their recreations of choice.

At the heart of this strange, runaway train of a story is Toby, who is a woman. She has survived to live in an isolated encampment, as far from danger as possible, alongside a small group of Crakers and an assortment of survivors, including Zeb, her lover. The Crakers' genitals turn blue in the mating season and the males develop very large penises. They are gentle folk who were created – "bio-engineered" – by Crake to live in the Paradice Dome, now destroyed or submerged. The Crakers operate as a kind of naive chorus, well intentioned, curious, free of jealousy, and with some endearing habits, such as purring to heal the sick and humming a kind of bee music.

So the story unwinds, as we are introduced to Zeb and his brother, Adam, and their back-story. They are the sons of a bogus preacher, the leader of a thriving and fraudulent church, the Church of PetrOleum, which worships oil; their father stashed millions in banks in the Caymans and had some very unpleasant ways with young children. Zeb managed to siphon off his father's millions and he and Adam went on the run, hiding behind false identities. Later, he killed his father, who, it turns out, had murdered his mother.

I have to admit that, try as I would, I began to lose the will to keep abreast of the plot. I am sure this is my fault rather than Atwood's, but it seemed almost as though she had embraced automatic writing, that fad of the 19th century that suggested a writer could just sit down and the words could be channelled directly to his or her pen.

And the words certainly do pour out, not least because Atwood has a habit of qualifying statements three times. There are some wonderful, lyrical passages, particularly about bees, and there are some very good jokes. The book is written with admirable energy and bravura, but at the same time there is a nagging sense that what is supposed to be a richly imagined dystopia is, in fact, a rather overburdened and undisciplined indulgence.

I wondered what it was that induced a writer as gifted as Atwood to write this trilogy. It is playful, at times funny and mildly satirical, but I never felt that this world was fully realised, even on its own terms. A dystopian novel, I think, depends for its success on having roots in a reality we are familiar with or fear, but Atwood's book is, for all its bravura, whimsical rather than moving.

For myself, I will continue eagerly to read anything Atwood writes except tales of bioengineered people with blue genitals.


Justin Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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