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BOOK REVIEW: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury
September 2015
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

3/10

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The Heart Goes Last had some really interesting story elements and plot points going for it.

The main characters, Stan and Charmaine, are living in their car after economic collapse, with the money from Charmaine’s bar job their only form of income. They both used to have steady jobs, a nice home, and a bright future. They wanted to have children some day.

But now they have to pull strings in order to shower, and they only have the money to wash their clothes at a laundromat when they start to get particularly pungent.

Then Charmaine sees the advertisement.

Consilience is a new social experiment which offers stable jobs and a home, so long as they spend every second month in a prison-like environment. Prison-like because all the really criminal elements are quickly weeded out, leaving just the upstanding folk who signed on for this experiment.

Then it occurred to the planners of Positron, he says  – and this was brilliant – that if prisons were scaled out and handled rationally, they could be win-win viable economic units. So many jobs could be spawned by them: construction jobs, maintenance jobs, cleaning jobs, guard jobs. Hospital jobs, uniform-sewing jobs, shoemaking jobs, jobs in agriculture, if there was a farm attached: an ever-flowing cornucopia of jobs. Medium-size towns with large penitentiaries could maintain themselves, and the people inside such towns could live in middle-class comfort. And if every citizen were either a guard or a prisoner, the result would be full employment: half would be prisoners, the other half would be engaged in the business of tending the prisoners in some way or other. Or tending those who tended them.
And since it was unrealistic to expect certified criminality from 50 percent of the population, the fair thing would be for everyone to take turns: one month in, one month out. Think of the savings, with every dwelling serving two sets of residents! It was time-share taken to its logical conclusion.

Of course they sign up right away. What could possibly go wrong?

 

The first 160 pages of this novel are darkly humourous and interesting. The reader is still getting a feel for this world and all it entails at this point, and there are quite a few twists and turns, a fair bit of intrigue, and you will want to find out where this all ends up, where this situation will resolve.

Atwood presents us with a story that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of humanity, and the things people (see: men) might do when kept away from the subject of their desire, and horny.

Strolling between the rows of cages now, listening to the soothing clucks of contented hens, smelling the familiar ammonia scent of chicken shit, he wonders if he’s ashamed of himself for his chicken pimping and discovers that he isn’t. Worse, he ponders giving it a try himself, which might ease his tormented desires by wiping the image of Jasmine off his brain with a living feather duster. But there were surveillance cameras: a man could look very undignified with a chicken stuck onto him like a marshmallow on a stick. Most likely it wouldn’t work as an exorcism: he’d only start having daydreams about Jasmine in feathers.

The Heart Goes Last is a bleak portrait of the sinister, corporate greed and desire for control that linger behind even the most supposedly utopian ideals. More than anything, it’s a story about double standards, and never being able to trust another person fully. It’s also a story about how no man is able to control himself around women, and why should he have to?

Every single one of the characters within this novel is unlikable, and there are many situations in which a male character is shown to lust after anything with a vagina (be they biological or robotic vaginas), contemplating the steps he could take to get a piece of said vagina, but rages at the very thought of “his woman” sleeping with or thinking about sleeping with another man.

If this novel had been written by a man, reviewers would be raging at his misogynistic ideals, and this reader couldn’t help but wonder, while reading this story, just how deeply Atwood’s apparent hatred of men runs, as she insists on hitting the reader over the head with it, again, and again, and again.

Evidently, based on the style of telling, this was supposed to be a blackly humouros commentary on where our world is heading, with the idea that women should take efforts to protect themselves, rather than the idea that men should be respectful and in control of their actions when it comes to women. Unfortunately, the fact that every man in this novel is either evil or nothing more than a walking penis, sometimes both, and the repetitive driving home of this point, turns the second half into a slog. The payoff of which, this reader isn’t entirely sure was worth it.

As my first Atwood, I’m more than a little disappointed. I might have to give one of her tried and true classics a go with Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale.

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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