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)

2016 Review

I made goals a year ago. And then reviewed them on my birthday. There may be a sense of deja vu starting to set in. Spoiler alert: I did not yet become a cyclist, or a journalist. I still can’t knit or play the violin. I have started playing the the penny whistle though. I’m sure the neighbours love it.

So, let’s start with some positives. 2016 was a good year in a lot of ways. I started, and stuck at therapy. DBT seems to be helping. I love the people I share a group with, and the camaraderie we have in learning to live in our lives, and make lives we want to live in. It can be all kinds of hard work and sometimes you find out things about yourself you’d rather not face, but better that than the previous mess. Still a bit of a mess, but… maybe, slowly, I’m getting there. It’s an upward spiral, maybe. A labyrinth, possibly. But despite the wrong turns and confusion (and the odd Minotaur hiding in a dark corner), there does seem to be some kind of change. And a change is as good as a rest, right? I don’t feel so constantly crazy. Though I’m definitely not “cured”, whatever that would mean.

I still help out with Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity, in the warehouse. Just last night, 40+ people were there, making a heroic and successful effort to load a shipping container full of clothing and other needed supplies for Syria. I don’t feel like this is something to boast about though, more something that I’m honoured to be a part of, even in a small way.

Oh, and I did run that half marathon, and do that abseil for sponsorship money. I also ran a stall at the Padley Festive Fair? which collectively raised over £400 for the Padley Group charity, which works with some of the most vulnerable people in Derby.

I am still living in Derbyshire, and have somewhat made peace with that. So much beautiful countryside, and some really good people doing brilliant social activism and creative works. I’ve been travelling more lately though, mostly within England seeing friends, but to Italy as well for Christmas.

I got a poetry book published, and done something that I never really thought would happen: I’ve developed a certain amount of confidence performing live. I’ve actually got on stage and enjoyed it, rather than just feeling overwhelming dread the whole time. (Although the dread is still there.) This spoken word/reading out loud/actually speaking my words to real live people thing is beautiful. Sharing energy, communicating, that’s powerful. Thank you to City-Zen and Word Wise especially, for hosting such powerful and amazing nights.

A craptastically blurry pic, but the only one I’ve got of me onstage slaying and that.

I’ve loved and lost and suffered and learned. I’m grateful for the good times. And there were so many good times. Hopefully I’ll learn the right lessons, from the bad times. Twice this year I’ve left a man. Now I’m single and need to be. Not for rancour and isolation. I just need to turn into a real person, before I can be good for someone else. I need to learn my own edges before I blur them into someone else’s reflection.

Friends are love. I’m sorry for neglecting you and missing you and the trials of living scattered across counties, countries, continents.

Thank you all for the good times. We’ve had some adventures.

I’m grateful for my family. I’m back living with my parents. I’m amazed they’ll still have me. I lose count of how many times I’ve come crashing back down to here, to rebuild in this nest. There have been many gatherings and events and meetings, not least the wonderful wedding festival of my cousin. Just, love to the whole enormous crew who I am not going to list and name because we are a sizeable tribe and you don’t want to be here al day.

This year has left me feeling depleted. I’ve known for a while I was running out of energy, burning the candle at both ends, failing to nourish and replenish and all that. There have been some truly horrible times where I didn’t know how I could possibly survive. But, I did. There have been people lost. Real people we knew, not celebrities. Although their families must be suffering the same grief as any, and damn I did love Leonard Cohen. But it’s not at all the same. I’m not going to do a list of loss and trauma and fear. But it’s always there in this life, ocean always wearing away at the sand, chaos always waiting to spin us off into the void. It’s dark out there.

In a wider context, this has been a frightening year. We watched with grief and rage as Syrian children drowned, as Donald Trump was elected, as racist attacks and hate crimes rose as fear and rage seemed to convulse a world spinning wildly between the end of one era and the beginning of the next. What the fuck is going to happen? Who knows? 2016 has been a year where running away to live in the woods has seemed like a more attreactive option than before.

Running on mania, running on fumes, then running out of fumes, running on gritted teeth and coffee and alcohol. Eventually everything crashes. So I go into 2017 with less energy than before, feeling old and foolish, but with optimism that I’ll be able to come back from this.

Nature has nourished me deeply, has been a refuge and saviour and source of deep joy. This is what I plan to delve into more deeply, to return to and explore this year and all the years.

Much love. May 2017 open for you like a flower, and may you learn what you need to, before you are forced to.

As for 2016, I rate it 3/7. 4/7 if it hadn’t killed Carrie Fisher just at the end, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse.



2016 Review


It’s been a rough week. But I have so much to be grateful for.

One Mic was amazing. Maybe the best performance of my life,and definitely the best audience and the best vibes. It was a room full of love (and a little chaos, and sometimes bread). The other performers were varied, interesting, talented – that’s what I really love about a good open mic, when it’s really open and you get an absolutely surprising selection, from classic covers to the never-before-conceived-of, from nervous poets clutching notebooks to the singer with the sure voice  of a lark, all there for the cause of creativity, entertainment, sending a message. All there together, to communicate and celebrate with a roomful of human beings.

I am grateful that people put in the effort to arrange events, that people care to come play, speak, sing, watch. I’m grateful that I got the chance to perform and that people were touched by my words.

I have a skill I can use to make  vibrations in the ether. It’s time to start using my words. There’s nothing so ungrateful as wasting a gift.


Tuesday Tune: Wolf Alice – “Blush”

Lovely boat buddy turned me on to this song and I can’t stop listening to it. I love guitar bands, emotional yearning and ethereal female vocals. This combines coolness, attitude and heart-wrenching vulnerability in perfect ratios.

Wolf Alice are a good band as well, they don’t just have this one great tune, they have a bunch. They sound very early 90s, in a good way. They’ve taken the best parts of early indie and grunge and made something fun and new, minus the adolescent pretentiousness but still with the feeling.

This isn’t turning into a music blog, but this music is relevant to my feelings. Also, when I find a song or band I love, I want to make everyone listen to them. I will force my taste on you, I don’t care. I think this is great, so you better frikkin appreciate it.

Tuesday Tune: Wolf Alice – “Blush”