Charmaine and Stan are living in the near future, a time when the economy has collapsed across the American Midwest, people are jobless, broke and picking over the leftovers of a bygone age. Those who fled in time to the west coast were lucky; those who didn’t face a bleak future.
So, when Charmaine and Stan are offered a chance to live in a gated, self-sufficient community that still enjoys plentiful food, security and employment, what’s not to like? Somewhat oddly, at any given time half the population of the commune lives in prison whilst the other half have houses, scooters and jobs – but at the end of each month everyone switches round. And since the prisoners are just regular people, it’s not much of a hardship…
The Heart Goes Last is not an exercise in realism. The plot has so many holes it could double as a fishing net. But the novel has a style and panache that carries it through the various improbabilities and impossibilities. The narrative style is simple, clear and intriguing; the reader wants to know what’s going on, how Stan and Charmaine are going to get out of the various inevitable tight spots, how this alternative world works. It’s become a bit of a pejorative term, but this is a page turner.
As the story moves forward, it gets quite adult in its themes. We have passion, adultery, blackmail and… er… robots. Despite the broken world economy, it seems there is an insatiable demand for comfort robots. There are also some decidedly dodgy surgical procedures. And there are rules, surveillance, punishments, spies and snitches.
Like so many of these dystopian novels, we get a whistle stop tour of the community with an access-all-areas pass, we get the reveal of the awful truth, and we get the escape and rescue scene. In terms of recent novels, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Flowertown (SG Redling), The Circle (Dave Eggers) and The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist) – but going further back and into the world of cinema, it could almost be Logan’s Run. Plus dodgy economics. We’re not finding radical new insights into our society, we’re not talking some kind of giant allegory although there are themes, perhaps, of power and control. It is a bit of fun, though.
on 8 December 2015
I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of the Heart Goes Last after an event run by the Guardian where Atwood was interviewed by Naomi Alderman. Being an avid fan of the dystopic Maddaddam trilogy, I was naturally extremely eager to start reading her last book. However, after 100 pages, my eagerness began to descend in to indifference for the following reasons:
- I find the overall premise a little bit flaky. I understand that in crisis times in history people often waiver their rights in place of a structured society. However, for a book based on such a theoretical scenario, I expected the story to be more assured in its direction.
- I don't think a terrible lot of effort has gone in to changing the serialised Positron books in to a self-standing book. The chapters are too short, making the book feel unnecessarily fragmented.
- The story is too over-the-top to be serious. One of the reasons I enjoy Atwood is for her subtle, wry humour. However, in the Heart Goes Last, it just becomes bizarre, which does rather detract from the overall story.
- Despite having a limited cast of characters, the majority still feel underdeveloped at the end of the book.
This is the first Atwood book I have read where I haven't cared how it ended. All in all, not the worst book I have ever read, but the worst book I have ever read by her to date.
on 24 October 2015
What can one say? This story is strange, terrifying, sad, dystopian but also - throughout - laugh-out-loud funny, wacky, hugely human and slyly ironic. With this, her latest novel, Margaret Atwood must surely further secure her place as one of the most original writers of fiction today.
She has an extraordinary capacity to envisage hideous yet horribly believable futures, which feel uncomfortably like the present if we care to look around us. But what saves her dystopia from being bleak or depressing is that (a) she is funny; (b) her characters are warm, fallible, 'real'-feeling people who evoke our sympathy and make us care what happens to them; and (c) some kind of humanity usually wins out, sometimes where you least expect it.
A great read. I'm not giving it 5 stars because there were a few moments where I felt she went a inch or two beyond believability into farce; funny, yes, but a slight imperfection. Think blue teddy bears. This is not a spoiler - you'll see what I mean when you read it. But overall, it's still a 'must read'.
on 10 November 2015
As with previous Margaret Atwood novels I could the writing crisp, compelling and funny. The ease of reading, the intelligence and wit make this an easy and rewarding ride. There are two Points of View, that of Charmaine and her husband. Neither of them is entirely sympathetic though if I am honest with myself, the candour with with they speak represents a shadow side many of us would like to keep locked away. The world they live in is almost unredeeming yet scarily familiar. I read this to the end, which I cannot say of many books. The reason: the hooks, plot tension, evocative writing and I simply could not wait to see what the characters do next. Atwood places the characters in all sorts of funny situations and its entertaining to watch them cope.
on 28 October 2015
I loved the underlying plot of this book but found the actual read really disappointing, it has no depth & although i engaged with the characters & wanted to know what happened to them I found myself skipping whole pages because they were so boring. This would have made an excellent short story but to put it in the same league as Orwell & Huxley is ludicrous.
on 1 May 2016
I love Margaret Atwood and though I enjoy her more realistic work too, I think she's at her best when creating imaginative dystopias. It's an over-crowded genre at the moment with a million and one ill-thought out Hunger Games ripoffs, but I was sure that Atwood could still bring something original, intelligent and imaginative to the mix.
The opening few chapters were chilling and brilliant. Instead of the machinations of evil governments or corporation, we are presented with a world much like our own in which the recession has got worse and previously middle-class families are sleeping in their cars, not getting enough to eat and resorting to petty crime and casual prostitution, while at the mercy of criminal gangs and vicious thugs. Unlike most visions of the future, which are so removed from real life its hard to feel scared, this felt very believable and was an uncomfortable but enthralling read.
The central couple are at the absolute end of their tether with this lifestyle when they are invited to live in a compound where they will spend one month in a prison and one month in an idyllic but closely controlled 1950s style town, swapping with another couple. It was obvious that even with the prison angle factored in, this was too good to be true and I was intrigued to learn more about the compound and see where this was going.
Sadly, from there on in, both interesting concepts - the anarchical society and the prison/paradise split - were utterly squandered. The prison didn't seem that different to the outside and the implications weren't really explored. I'd assumed the couple would be swapping with wealthy criminals, which would have created a fascinating moral dilemma, but instead, it was just constantly rotating ordinary people. No convincing explanation was given for how the system was supposed to be profitable. All sorts of random dystopian cliches of organ donations and sex slaves and brainwashing were thrown incoherently into the mix. The central plot - in which the husband and wife from the main couple fall in love with the couple they switch with - was contrived and had the feel of one of those 1970s farces that rely entirely on misunderstandings, only without the humour. The twists and turns were unbelievable and it was hard to understand anyone's shifting motivation or the choices they made.
About halfway through, completely bemused by yet another unemotional reaction to a crisis, another unlikely plot twist, and another random change of heart by a character, I wondered if I was missing something. Like the ending would reveal that the characters were robots or had been drugged or hypnotised for most of the plot. It's not to be. The characters' actions simply don't make sense and there's no compelling rationale for they they don't make sense. From that point onwards, I had to force myself to the end as things got sillier and sillier.
Throughout, I felt the author couldn't quite decide whether this was supposed to be dark comedy or serious social commentary, and while I'm all for using humour to make serious points, this trode an uneasy line between the two and didn't really work on any front.
Like I said, I love this author, so I was very disappointed and completely bemused, especially as the opening chapters showed Atwood still has a huge talent and imagination. On the whole though, this was no better than the hordes of trashy dystopian novels available today and worse than many of them - unbelievable from such a noted writer.
on 5 January 2016
I love Margaret Atwood and her deliciously negative outlook on life. There is something quite exciting about her evident disappointment in the human race and the bleakness that she bleeds into her books. I don’t know why, perhaps it’s a fight against the enforced sickly sweetness of the world. The ‘let’s all be happy because everything is going to be alright’. Perhaps it’s that, or perhaps it’s just a delight to see something different for a change, to taste the sweet drops of the prohibited, the views you shouldn’t hold because where will negativity get you? Nowhere? Maybe though, just maybe, these brooding tales of woe are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to examining the ways we live and to stark warnings of what our future may behold – if we’re not careful, of course. Atwood is the queen of this, the queen of modern dystopia and this novel, The Heart Goes Last, is certainly no exception.
Stan and Charmaine live in their car. It wasn’t always like that. They had once had jobs they liked and a nice house but when the economy collapsed, so did their lives. All they were left with was their car, their love, and Charmaine’s job in the dingy bar, Pixeldust. When they see an advert for the Positron Project, then, it’s no surprise that they sign up. A nice house and a guaranteed job in the quaint, 1950s style town, Consilience? What’s not to love? Of course, every other month they have to go to Positron Prison whilst their ‘alternates’ (those who stay in the prison whilst they are out) live in their home, sleeping in their bed. Beats living in a car, that’s for sure. Of course, in typical Atwood style, all is not what it seems and that is where the fun begins.
This book is definitive Atwood. Or at least, it starts out that way. As a reader, you tumble into her dystopian vision and it’s great. The concept of Consilience and the project is fascinating and pulls you in straight away but as the story continues, the book almost flips into farce. It goes from dark and brooding to hysterically kitsch. It jumps from the deceptively quiet town of Consilience to the wilds of Las Vegas and whilst enjoyed my jaunt through Vegas with more than enough Elvises and Marilyns, filled as it was with humour and farcical action, it sort of tainted the beginning of the novel, which had promised an equally dark and brooding conclusion.
It seems to me that this book is a game of two halves and whilst both are enjoyable, they don’t seem to mesh tremendously well. Was it intended as black comedy throughout? Perhaps, though that wasn’t made clear at the outset. I can’t deny it made me giggle often (and out loud, too) but the ending almost made the beginning seem less than it was: less impressive, less serious, less of an issue. Only almost though, because actually, that stark warning we’ve come to love from dystopia, and that examination of our lives, is still evident, it’s still brooding, and it’s still a fascinating look at what we possibly have to look forward to. So what if the second half was funny? Who says that dystopia always needs to be depressing?
It doesn’t need to be depressing is the truth, and this novel shows that. It’s surprisingly light in tone for such an ominous dystopia, and surprisingly light for Atwood too. Perhaps she’d one too many sherries and was feeling giggly (disclaimer: I have absolutely no idea if Atwood drinks sherry, but for some reason, I sincerely hope she does). But do you know what? That makes it all the more special, that twist between the dark dystopia and the humorously human. And just to top it all off, there is also a bit of Atwood’s signature raunchiness – slightly peculiar and maybe even a little disturbing, but exciting all the same.
It’s an odd novel, this one. I raced through it (as I often do with Atwood), enjoying the way she makes the words dance on the page and thrilling in having a peek into her, dare I say? slightly twisted yet hugely impressive imagination. As a writer, she is an inspiration. As a reader, she is delectable. And whilst all the elements of this particular book didn’t quite mesh for me, it’s still a wonderful tale full of intrigue, menace, and just the right amount of humour.
on 8 December 2015
I've read most of Margaret Atwood's work, but have become increasingly disappointed. This book was bought for me from Amazon as the buyer knows that I am such a fan of this author. Atwood's usual dystopian future, an interesting basic premise but the carry through has too many holes in the idea. I cannot see where the 'hilarious' parts are! Dull and silly. Like one of the other reviewers I ultimately became bored and skip read a great chunk at the end. I wonder if this book would have even been published at all if it hadn't had Atwood's name on it. Buck up Margaret and put a better thinking cap on.
on 7 November 2015
A good idea, surprisingly poorly expanded upon. I got very bored towards the end and thought the author did too! I felt all the Elvis stuff was simply padding to bulk out the page numbers..
on 16 October 2015
This has to be the most convoluted and misdirected book I have read in a long time. The story meanders along in a most bizarre fashion from a character being in love with a knitted toy and a man dressed as Elvis escaping in a coffin and arriving at a place with men coloured in green.