Book review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the heart goes last.jpgFollowing the economic collapse of the American mid-west, Stan and Charmaine’s upwardly mobile future disintegrates within the space of a few months. They lose their jobs, their status, their home, and find themselves living in their car and rifling through trash for food while avoiding the looters and rape gangs that now roam unchecked across middle America.

Things look grim until Charmaine hears of a bizarre social experiment designed to save the United States from collapsing into anarchy.  So they move to the town of Consilience which offers them careers and a pleasant suburban home – with one small catch: every second month they must give up their lives and spend thirty days in prison as corporation-owned slaves.  They sign up; I mean, every second month in prison isn’t so bad, right…?

I’m in two minds about this book. It was meticulously written, moderately funny and the characterisations were extraordinarily deep (more about that later). The overall plot was worryingly convincing, though I thought certain elements of it stretched belief a bit, though managed to keep it just this side of breaking point.

I didn’t find the two main protagonists particularly likeable,  but I really don’t think I was meant to. Stan is insecure and remarkably ineffectual; Charmaine comes across as a little bit dense, but she does have a deliciously ruthless streak to her. They didn’t actually make anything happen; other people just did things to them, so they were more like passengers throughout the plot. This isn’t a criticism by the way, just an observation.

As I said, the book was meticulously put together and is clearly the work of a very experienced writer. It follows a ‘stream of consciousness’ style: we spend a lot of time deep inside the protagonists’ heads, experiencing every meandering thought, dipping into the past, present and future all within the space of a single paragraph. It’s a great device because Charmaine has a particularly dark back story that she seems to be repressing, and though I do enjoy the style, it is very much an acquired taste. Fans of Virginia Woolf will love it, everyone else should try it at least once – and The Heart Goes Last is a good place to start.

Seven out of ten.

 

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