Now I know I am not known for reading piles of recently published fiction, (despite 3 new books in a row) and neither am I known for reading much dystopian fiction – I have read it occasionally though. So it might at first glance appear that I am not the most reliable reviewer of a novel like The Heart Goes Last. However I do actually quite like dystopian fiction though I read very little of it – and I do appreciate great writing, and Margaret Atwood is generally regarded as a very great writer. I finished this book almost a week ago – and have only just sat down to write my review because I think I felt a bit uncomfortable about it.
Before I began reading The Heart Goes Last, I expected to absolutely love it – I thought it would be a fantastic novel, and so I dived in, only a couple of weeks after buying the book. I had naturally avoided reading any reviews before I got stuck in. As I read The Heart Goes Last – I found myself switching moods fairly often, sometimes I really liked what I was reading, I was fascinated by the premise and the Dystopian world that Atwood has created – which in the first third of the book felt pretty believable. Suddenly I would find myself irritated – parts of the story were just a bit nuts – I think I fell into that trap of thinking ‘Oh well it must be really good because Margaret Atwood wrote it.’ Having since had time to think about the book as a whole – I have decided it actually isn’t all that good really. Ultimately the book doesn’t really go anywhere – and now I have scanned few reviews on Goodreads – which seem very mixed – so I don’t think I am alone. I didn’t hate it, (goodreads 3 star rating) I really liked the first third and I couldn’t help but find it quite compelling – just ultimately unsatisfying.
“Oblivion is increasingly attractive to the young, and even to the middle-aged, since why retain your brain when no amount of thinking can even begin to solve the problem?”
Atwood’s world in this novel is at first a perfectly recognisable one, a world which following a social and economic crisis has become a very difficult place to live in for many people. Stan and Charmaine, a married couple in their thirties like many other people – have found themselves homeless, Stan is unemployed, and the couple are living in their car existing on the pittance that Charmaine brings back from the grotty bar where she has some work. Their position within the broken society that now exists is a precarious one, prey to the vicious gangs that roam the streets looking for victims. So when Charmaine sees an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience it appears to be the answer to their prayers. The Positron Project promises safety, a beautiful comfortable home, jobs and a good life. In return for this suburban paradise all they will have to do is to swap their home for a prison cell every second month. One month they will live in the town, doing the jobs they are assigned, the next month their ‘alternatives’ will take their place in the house and do the jobs while Charmaine and Stan spend the time in Prison. Here they are also assigned jobs.
“The hedge doesn’t need trimming – it’s the first of January, it’s winter, despite the lack of snow – but he finds the activity calming for the same reasons nail biting is calming: it’s repetitive, it imitates meaningful activity, and it’s violent. The hedge trimmer emits a menacing whine, like a wasp’s nest. The sound gives him an illusion of power that dulls his sense of panic. Panic of a rat in a cage, with ample food and drink and even sex, though with no way out and the suspicion that it’s part of an experiment that is sure to be painful.”
Those in charge of the project claim their project will solve the housing and employment situation beautifully. Inside the town of Consilience living under the Positron Project, life is fairly perfect – or so it seems. Everyone is happy, they have beautiful comfortable homes, jobs to which they are perfectly suited, lovely food, bathrooms stocked with thick fluffy towels, and you turn on the radio and the cosy, dulcet tones of Doris Day come out. In prison, there are knitting circles and work that will benefit the whole of the town to get stuck into. The town has been based around a fifties ideal – which is very well done, and even helps to add to the chilling nature of the story – there is something comforting about the fifties we often think – but not here.
“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed; so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.”
Of course there is the problem of the real criminals to be dealt with as the project gets underway – but of course someone has thought of that. It quickly becomes apparent that not everything in Positron is idyllic. After a little while, Stan and Charmaine each develop a passionate obsession about their ‘Alternative’ who occupies the house when they are in prison. It is this that leads to all sorts of trouble. It is forbidden to interact with their ‘Alternatives’ who in theory they should never meet anyway – the one day when it is possible being ‘switch over day.’ Sexual desire, guilt and misery in a plot that I have seen described as dark and wickedly funny. Well yes it is darkly comic in places, but possibly not wickedly funny, and there were moments that become just rather too bizarre. Living sex dolls, troops of created Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe ‘dolls’ on the loose in Las Vegas! It got a little too unbelievable really – and then didn’t really go anywhere – I suspect there will be a Positron book 2 – I’m not sure if I will bother though if there is. The one thing Atwood does do really well in The Heart Goes Last is to evoke the atmosphere of living within a deeply sinister environment.