Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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 definitively 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 I 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.

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