The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

It’s almost impossible to find a review of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood without the reviewer comparing* it to Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m bucking the trend and here’s why: the central premise of both novels is extraordinary – memorable, mind-bending, frightening, and thoroughly compelling.

I read The Handmaid’s Tale decades ago. I can’t remember any of the fine detail of Atwood’s writing but I do remember the horrifying world in which the characters lived. I’m quite sure that in twenty years time, I will also remember Consilience, the walled community created for The Heart Goes Last.

The story focuses on Charmaine and Stan. They’re unemployed, living in their car, and at the mercy of thieves and thugs, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own. However, there’s a catch – it’s suburban paradise one month and then, every second month, they swap their home with their Alternates (another couple) for a prison cell (in Positron). This style of living keeps a large number of people safe, sheltered, fed and employed.

“Because citizens were always a bit like inmates and inmates were always a bit like citizens, so Consilience and Positron have only made it official.”

Of course, life in Consilience and Positron is not all white-picket fences. There are experiments going on with body parts, shady deals, and high-level surveillance – Atwood has created a crazy world –

“If prison isn’t prison, the outside world has no meaning. Now, enjoy the rest of your experience here!”

I started The Heart Goes Last as an audiobook but had to switch to reading a hard copy after listening to the first few chapters – the narrators of the audiobook were terrible and the voices they put on for each character, excruciating. I mention this because I was so distracted by the narrators that I failed to notice the satire in the story. By the time Atwood was rolling out the sexy-robots and automated Elvises (in the Elvistorium), I was in on the joke.

“With no orders to follow, she occupies her mind by painting her nails, which is a very soothing thing to do when you’re anxious and keyed up. Some people like to throw objects, such as glasses of water or rocks, but nail painting is more positive. If more world leaders would take it up there would be less overall suffering, in her opinion.”

Despite Atwood’s glib tone and characters that are bordering on caricature (Charmaine is an imbecile and Stan’s menacing behavior is obvious and predictable), there’s familiar messages to throw the reader off-balance –

“Men don’t like to think about makeup, they like to think everything about you is genuine. Unless of course they want to think you’re a slut and everything about you is fake.”

You can choose to look for deeper meaning in a story like this or you can do what I did and just enjoy the mad ride, knowing that with Atwood at the wheel, the journey will be memorable.

3.5/5 Engrossing.

“The lunch is chicken salad. It’s made with chickens raised right here at Positron Prison, in healthy and considerate surroundings…”

Actually, there’s a fair bit going on with the chickens at Positron but I wont spoil the surprise for those that haven’t read the book (or put you off this delicious Grilled Tequila Lime Chicken Taco Salad from Cafe Delites).


*generally unfavourably

14 responses

    • Same, I love Atwood. Hardcore fans will read whatever she writes so I figure my review won’t change that either way. The main characters were incredibly annoying but I still can’t decide if that’s because they actually were or if it’s because I got their voices stuck in my had courtesy of the bad audiobook version…

    • There are a number of other Atwood novels I’d recommend over this one but I loved the concept. I do wonder if the experience would have been different if I’d read it as a serial, as it was first published?

  1. It took me a while to get that it was satire, and then I eventually decided it’s a take on Paradise Lost (my review is in the blog archives). Not my favorite book, but interesting!

    • Agree – not my favourite Atwood but the concept of Alternates was clever. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but thought there were so many of dystopian tropes that you couldn’t help but think Atwood was poking fun.

  2. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this book, though I haven’t read anyone else mention the Elvis robots. These days, when I read anything about Elvis, I already feel like the work is dated. We’re so far beyond sexy young Elvis that all I can think of are his massive sideburns and terrible outfits he wore before his death. That, and all the impersonators.

    • You best avoid this book then – there are hundreds of Elvises! I think Atwood used Elvis deliberately to show that although it’s 2040, things don’t change. The way she did it was quite funny (and OTT) but no mention of it was Young Elvis or Old Elvis!

    • I found the concept of this interesting but certainly not in the style of her previous work. I think the last one that I really, really loved was The Blind Assassin.

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