Margaret Atwood is probably one of the most popular writers of dystopian fiction. For my money, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best and most disturbing books ever written, and it was with eagerness that I picked up The Heart Goes Last.
The story is set in America in the near future, after an economic meltdown has resulted in unprecedented unemployment and homelessness (which makes me hope that Atwood is not also a fortune teller, given the current political climate!) Stan and Charmaine, a once happily married couple, are now resorted to living in their car, eating whatever they can scrounge, scavenge or afford from Charmaine’s low-paid bar job, and constantly avoiding the thieves and violent gangs who roam the streets.
So when they see an advert for a new social experiment called Consilience, they are keen to join. The idea is that everyone who lives in the restricted community will be given a nice house, a good job, and will have money for food and luxuries. In return they will have to give up their new luxury home every second month and go into Positron, the prison in Consilience…but even that doesn’t sound so bad. They get square meals, a bed and a job within the prison. However, once they are inside Consilience they realise that there is no way out – and that their every move is being watched. Each of them develop an obsession with their ‘alternates’ – the couple who live in their house during Stan and Charmaine’s prison months and vice versa – which only leads them further into the tangled reality of what really goes on in this promised utopia.
If I’m honest, I am still not entirely sure what to make of this book. I definitely don’t think it is up to the standard of The Handmaid’s Tale, but that was truly one of my favourite books ever, so maybe it’s asking too much to enjoy every Atwood novel quite so much. For me, The Heart Goes Last started out very promisingly. The awful situation the main characters was living in was all too believable and I could see how they could be drawn into something which would seem like a wonderful way out of their dire straits. However, as the story progressed it got more and more unrealistic – and here’s the thing…for me at least dystopian fiction has to have an element of feasibility. Not that you would want it to actually happen in real life, but you have to see how it could. This novel just did not have that. The last third of the book in particular almost seemed to descend into farce, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that neither Stan nor Charmaine were particularly likeable or relatable characters. (In fact, there were very few people in this book who I felt I could root for).
That said, I still liked Atwood’s acidic humorous writing, and she does have a marvellous turn of phrase. The book is funnier than I expected, and it was an undemanding read despite some distinctly unsavoury events within the book.
This has not put me off reading more books by Margaret Atwood, and I probably would recommend it with caution to fans of the author. However, if you are trying her novels for the first time, I would suggest starting with The Handmaid’s Tale or maybe The Robber Bride.