Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.
I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan. I haven’t read all of her novels (who has? There’s about 40 of them. Who has that kind of spare time?) but this is the best one I’ve read so far. Yes, I enjoyed this more than The Handmaid’s Tale. More than Oryx and Crake. And more than last year’s release, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales.
Whilst I was reading The Heart Goes Last, I was trying to work out why I loved it so much. Were the characters any more three dimensional than in her other works? No. Was the plot development any more realistic than her other works? No. But there were a few things that I think set this book apart from the others.
Other than literary novels and young adult novels, I love campus novels (stories set within a university campus). That is, novels that are set within a secluded and enclosed environment. The characters seem trapped. The entire plot of the novel takes place at the same location, and it’s almost like the characters can’t escape their problems. It’s fantastic for a reader, and this kind of enclosed setting/environment is seen in The Heart Goes Last. The main characters, Charmaine and Stan, volunteer for a social experiment where they live within a gated community. The spend every second month working in the community, and every other month locked in prison.
Margaret Atwood does a fantastic job of creating characters that are flawed but realistic as well. They might be narrow minded, but they offer interspersed societal comments that reflect well on their current situation. They might be ignorant, but they’re ironically very aware of their own feelings and emotions and desires. In The Heart Goes Last, Charmaine and Stan aren’t the most likeable. Stan seems complacent and unassuming and well, a little boring. Charmaine is the real star of the book, but she at times seems naive and silly.
The novel is meant to be funny. The most absurd and bizarre things happen, including robots that people can have sex with. Prostitute Robots, I call them. And it makes the book seem like black comedy. Odd, utterly bizarre characters and odd, utterly bizarre happenings within this social experiment.
I love it because of that. I love it because Margaret Atwood never does what you think she’ll do. She never does what she’s done before, and she uses beautiful, lyrical prose to flesh out her characters, no matter how unlikeable they may be.
My Score: 9/10