Review: The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood, 2015)

May contain mild spoilers but I’m not going to tell you the ending.

I was excited to find this book, quite by chance, in the charity shop at the end of my road. I have a lot of time for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fictions. Her MadAddam Trilogy is one of my favourite books ever. So I dived right into The Heart Goes Last like a child diving into a pool on a hot summer day, without a care in the world.

I was not disappointed, much. The story on paper seems implausible. We would never volunteer to live in a locked community, to spend half our lives in comfortable prisons, to be subject to constant surveillance. Right? Right???

Stan and Charmaine, the married couple and main characters, choose security over freedom. In a nightmare America where recession and offshore finance have  reduced most of the cities to the status of post-bankruptcy Detroit, they’re sick of living in their car, fearing for their lives. So the Consilience project seems like a great place to live. But of course, in this nightmare of capitalism gone even wronger than it is now, the creepy 50’s faux-utopia hides ravenous fangs and managerially mandated nightmares. Under the pressure of this bizarre facade, Stan and Charmaine start to crack. Sexual obsession and death tangle them up in convoluted plots and their lives devolve into surreal nightmares of sexbots, brain surgery, Elvis impersonators and undercover agents.

There were moments of this book that made me gasp. Atwood really delves into how humans can do awful things under pressure. Think of the Milgram experiment, or Zimbardo’s prison. Charmaine, a character who would be trite or even irritating without the precisely measured hints to her traumatic past, is an ideal subject for this nexus of control. A sweet woman who genuinely cares about home furnishings, we see how she deludes herself into warping her sense of morality and even reality, in order to carry on living in material comfort and not rock the boat. Being nice, appearing sweet, are weapons of survival that she has learned to wield with great skill. But then again, she might just be being sensible, because people who rock the boat in Consilience tend to disappear. 

This book is written from alternating perspectives of Stan and Charmaine, so we see how each of them see each other, how they see themselves, and the contrast. Deliberately written as an ‘everyman’ type of couple, sometimes the simple language of their thoughts can feel like the writer is patronising her own characters. The common man drinks too much beer, likes trimming the hedge, and is pretty damn homophobic. He lusts after women and wishes his wife would give him more sex. The common woman is sexually withholding, finds importance in nail varnish and throw pillows, is somewhat sentimental but tries her best to pamper her husband and keep his spirits up. They are both passive victims of events, rarely making a decision themselves but caught in the webs of machinations of people who do have power. This is a pawn’s eye view of some complicated chess, and at times it left me feeling queasy. Society is conditioning people into this kind of toxic sleepwalking, and come collapse, what will we do? It’s enough to turn you into a prepper, because civilisations do have a nasty habit of collapsing.

In some ways, this is a twisted love story of betrayal, redemption, kidnap and neurological interventions. In other ways, it is a slapstick romp through a dystopia whose echoes we can already feel pooling in the present. Mega-corporations, government collusion, outsourcing of jobs and off-shoring of capital, are the bad guys in fiction as in real life. Atwood just draws the results of their predation to creative conclusions which are nonetheless still obviously moulded from the clay of our present world.

This is a book full of ideas, some of which could be books in themselves. It started life as a serial, which might explain the slightly uneven pacing. There is fun to be had here, and some thrilling thought experiments, but by the end I was left wondering why. Of course as a writer it’s great fun to treat your characters like a cruel child torturing ants, but there should be some kind of payoff. And in this case, the ending made me angry, and actually detracted from the excellence that was shown elsewhere in the book. It was an unexpected crash-landing into neurotically mawkish cliche and I do not need that in my life.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 

A dystopian romp with some great ideas, delicious in parts but slightly undercooked.



Review: The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood, 2015)