Apr/May 2022  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Heart Goes Last

Review by Ann Skea

The Heart Goes Last.
Margaret Atwood.
Bloomsbury. 2015. 306 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 6778 5.

Margaret Atwood messes with our heads, as one of the character in this book might say. Just when you think this is a straightforward dystopia novel, where society has broken down and new ways of living have been designed, she surprises you with a plot twist and keeps you guessing about the outcome. She also plumbs the psychological depths of her characters and poses moral dilemmas. In a chapter called "Headgame," for example, there are questions of trust and responsibility—can you trust someone who says that for the greater good you must allow yourself to be given what will apparently be a lethal injection but you will not die; and can you administer that injection to someone you love believing it to be lethal?

Stan and Charmaine have been living a fairly comfortable married life until a sudden countrywide economic disaster causes them, like many others, to lose their jobs and their home. They are living in their car, surviving on Charmaine's casual job in a sleazy bar, which funds only a minimal amount of petrol, stale doughnuts and instant coffee made in the car with a plug-in cup warmer. And they must be ever-ready to drive away from crazy solitaries and roving gangs who threaten to rob, rape and possibly kill them.

They are in a desperate state when, in a quiet moment in the bar, Charmaine sees a TV advert seemingly directed straight at her. It offers an ordered life, satisfying work, a house with a luxurious bathroom and soft towels, and a king-size bed with floral sheets. "The Positron Project is accepting new members now," says the man on the screen. Charmaine and Stan decide to apply for an interview, which they pass, and having been shown around the project and told something about it, they are allowed a short period back in the world outside the Project's gated town to think about it. The only disadvantage seems to be that once they are in, it is permanent.

Stan's brother, Conor, who is apparently prospering by suspect means, warns him not to sign anything. But the chance seems too good to miss, so Stan ignores this advice and he and Charmaine join the project.

For a while, everything seems to work well. They share a house with another couple, and each month one couple lives in the house in the model town of Consilience, work in a satisfying jobs, and earn Posidollars, whilst the other couple live in the twin city of Positron Prison, which has comfortable cells and where guards and prisoners share the work, and the environment is designed to be economically productive and to rehabilitate genuine criminals. The motto of the whole project is: CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE. DO TIME NOW. BUY TIME FOR THE FUTURE. The couples alternate, month and month about, and are never supposed to meet.

As time goes by both Stan and Charmaine develop sexual obsessions about the other couple who share the house. Stan's obsession is full of sexual fantasies and is all in his head. Charmaine, however, actually meets the other man and explores with him her own unexpectedly passionate sexual desires. And, of course, nothing is as secret as any of them believe.

The results of this takes the story into a different, more complex and disturbing realm in which the dark underside of the Project is gradually revealed. Psychological pressures, conformity, distrust, guilt, sexual desire—all become driving forces. The twists in the plot are unexpected and the situations often bizarre. And the whole thing is also very funny.

As usual, Margaret Atwood exaggerates current trends and extrapolates from current scientific research to present us with some worrying possibilities. But she does so, very often, with her tongue firmly in her cheek and with great humor. She has great skill in creating characters we can recognize and making their speech and behaviour exactly what we would expect of them. They are, perhaps a little caricatured, and the plot often stretches our credulity to the limits, but most readers will nevertheless thoroughly enjoy the book.


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