October 30, 2015

Book Review—The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

America is in the middle of an economic collapse, with all the social turmoil and unrest that goes with it. Unemployment, homelessness and crime are all up, and even those with once promising careers and lives are caught in the downturn. Stan and Charmaine are part of the many, now living in their car and surviving on a single, menial income. But things look up when they get into the Consilience/Positron program, a social experiment in a closed off community. In Consilience they get a comfortable house, jobs, and purpose. But every second month they swap with their ‘Alternates’, another couple with whom they share their new prosperity, and for this second month Stan and Charmaine live separated lives in Positron, a prison around which this community is built. The truth behind the gleaming façade soon comes to the fore, and Stan and Charmaine become entangled in the sleazy, gruesome underworld.

The stability they craved becomes the very thing that leads Stan and Charmaine wayward. Both seemingly adapt, but transgression becomes the ever present focus of their minds. And despite being marketed as the ideal community, neither Charmaine nor Stan establish bonds with anyone else in Consilience. Apart from the ever declining interactions between themselves they make no connections, save for the forbidden cavorting with their ‘Alternates’. There is a pastiche of other dystopic works, with hints of The Stepford Wives, a debt to Never Let Me Go, and a dose of Brave New World for good measure. This, along with the Yuppie-inspired Newspeak and plethora of pop culture references, does crowd the narrative. And while the recurrence of 1950s style and icons is effective, with its prim and proper gleefulness covering repressed lust, greed, and longing, the use is far from original and loses much of its ironic heft.

It may not have the bite or depth of Atwood’s earlier works, but The Heart Goes Last has involving characters, enjoyable dark humour, and an entertaining plot.


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