Darn Margaret Atwood – the older you get the less it appears you think of the human race! Atwood famously claims she doesn’t write science fiction, only speculative fiction and this book is seated firmly within her favourite sub-genre: dystopian speculative fiction.
In the near future the economy has tanked. As vast swathes of the population lose their jobs and their homes they become transient, moving to wherever the jobs are, finding shelter where they can. Large criminal gangs roam the streets, looting and finding sport by attacking unwary civilians.
Charmaine and Stan are two such civilians, living in their car and taking turns to sleep while watching out for trouble. Charmaine has a low paid bartending job while Stan used to have a highly skilled job in robotics but can no longer find work in this post-financial collapse America.
While at work Charmaine sees an advert for a new socio-economic experiment that is looking for volunteers. In essence it’s some sort of time share. There is a co dependent prison and town setup and the volunteers spend a month living in an identikit house in the town, having a normal job and normal life, followed by a month living in the prison, working in the fields, laundries and factory there. Prison is not to be an uncomfortable experience and the idea is that while there they help to rehabilitate the pre-existing inmates. While the volunteers are spending their month in prison their counterparts are living in their house and vice versa.
Charmaine, ever the optimist, talks Stan into joining up, despite the ominous warning that once you’ve signed up you can never leave. At first everything is just great. In town Stan works repairing the mopeds that everyone uses to get around, Charmaine is given an extra special job due to her history of nursing, and the house is small but after living in their car for so long it’s luxury. In the prison Stan looks after the chickens (who I feel incredibly sorry for actually – I wonder if Atwood knows much about chickens in real life) and Charmaine knits blue soft toys.
Despite this idyllic existence cracks begin to form. Both Stan and Charmaine become obsessed with the other people that inhabit the house. The experiment is set up so that the counterparts should never meet each other but it turns out curiosity kills the cat. It quickly becomes evident that, unsurprisingly, not all is as it seems and we’re lead into a whirlwind of mystery, biotech, espionage, sex bots and multiple Elvises.
Did I enjoy this? I read it in one sitting while on the train to my mother and then promptly handed it to her to read. I need to ask her for her thoughts because while the concept is right up her street I’d be interested in how she finds the grittier elements of Atwood’s writing. There are some proper twists and laugh out loud moments despite the surreal nature of some of the plot threads. I think my main problem is that I can’t bring myself to like any of the main characters. Perhaps that’s the point, I don’t know. Charmaine is annoyingly coy, saccharine and naive, right at home in the chintzy pastel coloured 50’s town the experiment has created (according to polls the 1950s was the decade that people felt happiest). Stan is rough around the edges and I feel somewhat more sympathetic towards him but he’s nasty and pathetic in turn, thinking far too much with his genitals.
I only found out after I’d finished reading this that it forms part of a loose series, based in the same setting. This book piqued my interest enough that I’ll likely keep an eye out for the rest of them.
You can buy The Heart Goes Last at the following places. I do not receive commission for books bought via these links.