Here’s the thing. I’ve never read a Margaret Atwood book before. Never. Having heard so much praise about her writing, I was excited when a copy of The Heart Goes Last arrived in my mailbox. Was it the best Atwood to start with? Here’s the blurb:
A sinister, wickedly funny and deeply disturbing novel about a near future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free. Charmaine and Stan are young and in love. Victims of a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, they struggle to keep their relationship alive in the face of increasing poverty. Now living in their car, they survive on tips from Charmaine’s job at filthy dive bar, until the day they see an advertisement for a social experiment offering security, community, and a break from the daily grind of their current existence.
Leaving behind the uncertainty of their former lives, they sign themselves up for the perfectly manicured lawns of Consilience, with its stable jobs and protection from the increasingly unruly and angry population outside its walls. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – with a voluntary imprisonment. But what seems at first to be a balancing act worth investing in for the safety of a permanent roof over their heads, soon turns into a nightmare of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire.
The Heart Goes Last is many things: disturbing, unusual, compelling, absurd, strange and clever. The writing is tightly executed, packed with irony, satire and astute observation about the human spirit. It’s the story of a world in economic collapse and its impact on communities big and small, and how greedy and power-hungry people will find ways to profit from others’ misfortune. That’s the big picture.
Because after that night you were either out or you were in. In was permanent. But no one would force you. If you signed up, it would be of your own free will. (p33)
On a smaller scale, the lead characters, based in Modern America (but in the not-to-distant future) discover that nothing is ever free and some things really are too good to be true. The characters also highlight the lengths humans will go to deceive themselves, to want to believe something so much even when a little voice says they’re kidding themselves. When Charmaine and Stan sign up for life in Consilience, I wanted them to hear me saying, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t believe the corporate spin’. But then there wouldn’t have been a story.
‘Forget it,’ says Sandi. ‘I’m fucked.’ Her teeth are chattering. ‘No free lunch for me, I should’ve known. Now you need to put the hood back on and call a guard, and say why is this person in your cell, and they’ll clear me out of your way.’ (p142)
I found this book hard to put down, despite its at times disturbing aspects; it was only in the last quarter that I felt the absurdity ran away with itself.
Available from good bookstores (RRP $32.99). My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television