Book Review: Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

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You’ve got to feel for Margaret Atwood. She’s so iconic, such a hero to so many that when she publishes a new book, there’s so much pressure. And expectations are so high that it’s the small issues and minor tangles that stand out on reading her latest book, rather than all that’s right and exciting with it.

But let’s start with the good stuff. The Heart Goes Last is another in Margaret’s brand of ‘speculative fiction’ that takes issues in contemporary society and extrapolates them out to quite terrifying but wholly believable ends.

Here, the current economic slump has brought America to an economic and social collapse. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple who are feeling the worst of it. Their respective jobs evaporated in the recession, which led to them losing their home, which means they’re now reduced to living in their car, constantly vulnerable to the gangs that roam the streets.

There’s almost nothing left of their relationship and with nothing else to lose, they voluntarily trade in their lives in the Land of the Free for an experimental project in a fictional town called Consilience. What is in Consilience? A social experiment. One where residents are guaranteed stable jobs and homes of their own. All you have to do is give up your freedom every second month, swapping your home for a prison cell.

For here is Margaret’s clever thesis in this book: societies built around prisons guarantee success – guaranteed jobs for the guards, cheap labour in the prisons, and commercial enterprises around the prison flourish to support those who live and work nearby.

But how do you get criminals to fill the prison when you’re a society that has no crime? By getting all who live in this society to agree to spend every other month in the prison – willingly and voluntarily. That’s the trade. That’s the price for living in Consilience.

Only nothing is straightforward. Power structures and human behaviour complicate everything. So added to this mix of a constructed society, we have themes and subject matter including scientific breakthroughs, neurological surgery, sexual behaviour, the patriarchal need to control female sexuality and availability, the surveillance state… It’s all woven in to this story.

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Intellectually therefore the book is a treasure. But as I mentioned, there are challenges and the main concern for me was with the characters.

Neither Sean nor Charmaine are particularly sympathetic people, which makes them hard to root for – either as a couple of individually. But more challenging, they make decisions (particularly Charmaine) that are really hard to understand, that seem so out of character. A couple of times I was really, ‘ooh no she wouldn’t’. Or, ‘ooh that was a bit quick. She’d think a lot more about it first before she leapt in like that.’

There’s also a couple of areas when huge amounts of exposition is told rather than shown, characters being used as the vehicles of information rather limiting their ability to exist as three-dimensional believable people in themselves.

But if you just let these go (and admittedly you do have to ‘go with it’ more than once) this book has a lot to give.

It’s also worth mentioning that the hardback book cover describes its contents as ‘wickedly funny.’ I’ll be honest here people, there’s not a single sentence in this book that I found funny. As I sit here and write this, I’m trying to wrack my brain as to which parts of the story the Marketing department at Bloomsbury are thinking of when they say this – and nothing is coming to mind.

None of this book is funny. Parts of it are bizarre – such as sexual obsessions with teddy bears and a desire for sex dolls configured to look just like Elvis – but these are chilling more than humorous. A reflection on the profound disconnect that can occur between sexual desire and human contact. And that constant need for control. So please don’t go into this expecting comedy.

Overall though, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading Margaret Atwood. Her brain is razor-sharp, and she’s so insightful. Her ‘speculative fiction’ conveys so eloquently how I see the world today. I don’t know what that reveals about me. But if you’re the same, The Heart Goes Last is one to read.

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