I have been meaning to check out Margaret Atwood for a long time, and finally got the chance this week with my book club book, Oryx and Crake. I had high expectations going in based on all the good things I have heard about Atwood over the years, yet the book I found was not what I expected. Atwood is an extremely talented writer in the vein of Virginia Woolf, with deep flowing prose that is quite impactful. If Oryx and Crake’s writing is an indication of her skill, than her praise is definitely deserved.
Oryx and Crake, the first in a trilogy of books, sets itself up from the blurb on the back as a standard post-apocalypse book – boy trying to survive in the ruins of civilization as he slowly reminisces and reveals what destroyed the Earth. However, the book immediately steps away from that setting and goes deep into the background of our lead, Snowman. The book in many ways doesn’t even feel like a post apocalypse story, focusing much more on the character driven drama of Snowman’s upbringing and his angst filled youth. It reminds me a little of Catcher in the Rye in that it captures what it is to be young, but unlike Catcher isn’t so infuriating and arrogant that you want to throw the book out a window. I got this weird impression all throughout the book that Atwood gets the youth of today and understands their worries and plights. She writes like a smart cool mom, who is actually cool.
As I mentioned the book focuses mostly on Snowman’s upbringing on a research campus in a resource scarce world. Atwood does a great job extrapolating changes in society and imagining a truly bleak future that hits a little too close to home/reality making it feel extra unsettling. The book jumps around time line wise constantly, but is never hard to follow. However, all the jumping can occasionally make it feel directionless and lose some of the momentum of the story. Snowman is important as he essentially acts as an impartial observer to the rebirth of humanity. Oryx and Crake are childhood acquaintances of his that serve in many ways (literal and metaphorical) as the new Adam and Eve. The book does a great job of experimenting with the creation ethos that I found refreshing and unique. As I mentioned before, the prose is also phenomenal and I would probably be willing to read the book without anything else going for it. The science in the book is also really good, talking deeply about biology and chemistry. You can tell an enormous amount of research went into writing the story.
However, Oryx and Crake was not perfect. In the story, I found Crake fascinating in both past and present, but for some reason Oryx’s story seemed to just drag on. I know this sounds strange, but there are only so many pages I want to read about terrible things happening to very young girls. Atwood is a talented enough writer that, even though she left some atrocities visited upon Oryx intentionally vague, in her talented hands it somehow makes the crimes more disturbing. The pacing was not amazing. I found myself sometimes tearing through large portions of the book at a time, and others finding it hard to read more than a few pages before drifting off. The story feel very compelling in the end though, and I will be reading the sequels.
In the end, I can see why people think so highly of Margaret Atwood. She is a truly talented writer who feels like she has an understanding of human psychology that is much better than your average writer. She achieved shock and outrage without ever going over the top, and wrote an impressive post-apocalypse dystopian novel that is mostly about a teenager finding his place in the world. While this book in theory shouldn’t appeal to me, I really enjoyed it, which is an impressive feat. The Quill to Live definitely recommends Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
Rating: Oryx and Crake – 8.5/10