Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret AtwoodThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Published by McClelland & Stewart on September 29th, 2015
Genres: Dystopian, Science-Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Ottawa Library

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.

Margaret Atwood is probably the best-loved writer in Canada, the one you cannot fail to read if you’re serious about becoming a true Canadian bookworm. Like me. Six years after landing in the country, I couldn’t delay it any further without looking frankly suspicious, right? So I grabbed her very last work and dived into it with no clue about what to expect.
The back cover’s picture showed an elegant lady with a warm smile and a perfect hairdo of gray hair, not without ressemblance to Miss Manners, and the kind from whom you would definitely not expect the subsequent avalanche of crude language and deviant sex. The Heart Goes Last is bold and uninhibited, and as far as possible from some classics Atwood produced such as Alias Grace (which I read since then, what a masterpiece!). I can imagine a smirk on Margaret Atwood’s face when, typing this novel, she anticipated the reader’s wide eyes as one of her characters gets squeezed unconscious by a dysfunctional sexbot.
No, I won’t elaborate.

However, The Heart Goes Last has a point to make: private jail systems suck. You may wonder how much effort will be invested into reintegration when a company precisely makes money out of convicts. There’s no private prisons in Canada since 2006, when the last of two private prisons was deemed inefficient. However, there are several private jail corporations in the United States* and they seem to be the starting point of Margaret Atwood’s reflection. Or satire. Actually, let’s agree on satire.

In The Heart Goes Last, an economic crash left the East Coast of America impoverished and ruleless. Criminality escalates and, consequently, the number of convicts. Then, someone is struck with a bright idea: let’s rebuild the economy around the jail system! They ship a bunch of desperate people in a brand new town, put half of them behind bars, and the other half to work to sustain the prison. Each month, they (happily) switch role.
The town is entirely closed to outsiders, the whole town is owned by a greedy corporation, and humans will be humans, so what really could go wrong? Let The Heart Goes Last enlighten you.

You would think that a novel about a jail system is bound to bring you tears of boredom but The Heart Goes Last‘s story revolves around an utterly chaotic, thus entertaining, love story. Stan and Charmaine were a decently happy couple till they lost everything to the economic crash and fled “before their creditors could grab their car”. Stan is protective and an alpha man wannabe. Charmaine is naive and somewhat lost in La La Land. They lost their job; they live in their vehicle; poverty is undermining their relationship. So far, moderately amusing, I must admit. However, as soon as the couple is lured into the experimental town of Consilience, things go positively haywire.

Charmaine is utterly gullible and fall for any blatant sham that Consilience throws at her. She ends up showing how a good heart can be manipulated into performing abominations. On the other hand, Stan is perfectly clearheaded; yet cowardice (and lust) gets in the way of keeping them safe.
Their alternating point of views give depth and perspective to the mechanisms of Consilience and reveal how the “town” actually tames people into some kind of passive and blind slavery.

Now, the whole novel could have been a lot more depressing if it wasn’t for the headless battery-cage chicken and the head-in-a-box receptionists. As the story unfolds, the atmosphere unexpectedly turns wild and extravagant, with little green men and myriads of Elvis Presleys running around. Toward the end of the book, I had to check if I wasn’t reading a Jasper Fforde or a Douglas Adams. Really.

The Heart Goes Last was my first read by Margaret Atwood and to be honest, I went for a second one before I finished this review. I did get quickly interested into the mild dystopia and the thought-provoking satire of the private jail paradox, but it’s Margaret Atwood’s humour that I will remember the most. The second part of this novel was hilarious and this is the main reason why I would recommend it.

* Since I wrote this article, the US announced the progressive shut down of private federal prison. Margaret rules!