There is no way of knowing what goes on in other people’s heads unless they are writers, and based on the two novels I’ve read by Margaret Atwood, stranger stuff goes on in her imagination than what happens in mine. The Heart Goes Last has one of the most bizarre and entertaining plots that I’ve read in some time.
I haven’t read a Margaret Atwood novel since reading The Handmaid’s Tale thirty years ago, probably because that story completely freaked me out. In saying that, I probably should be reading everything this author writes, because remembering the plot for three decades is my definition of a good book. I expect I will be thinking about The Heart Goes Last for some time too.
The story follows an American couple, Stan and Charmaine, who in the beginning of the story are living in their car after losing their jobs and their home. At first, their America seems quite real and recognisable, although it is still not a place I would want to live. Australia is kinder to people who are down on their luck.
When Charmaine sees an advertisement on television for applicants to take part in the Positron Project, where she and Stan would have the opportunity to work and live in a home of their own in the town of Consilience, she convinces Stan to apply with her. They are accepted into the project and have very few doubts about going in, despite the fact that they are signing up for life and that for half of their time they will be prisoners in the town’s prison. After living in their car for so long and fending off other people who wanted to take what little they have, the Positron Project offered them security.
A year later, and Stan and Charmaine have settled into their new life in Consilience. They both have jobs and they are happy in their home. Stan enjoys trimming the hedges and mowing the lawn, while Charmaine revels in their home, particularly the kitchen appliances and fluffy white towels. At the end of each month in their home, they tidy up and stash their personal possessions into a colour coded locker in their basement, and enter the Positron prison, while their ‘Alternates’ live their lives in what is also their home for the next month. In prison, Stan looks after chickens and Charmaine has a job cannot be discussed or even thought about.
Despite the relative comfort and security of living in Consilience, Stan and Charmaine’s marriage has become stale and they both become infatuated with their Alternates. As they become obsessed with their fantasies, the strangeness of their world starts to come out more in the story, and there is some really weird and unpleasant stuff going on. The people running the Positron Project are clearly making money from the town and prison and their business is nasty. The sexual fetishes are not for the faint-hearted either, although some of them are very funny. I’ll never look at a blue, knitted teddy bear in quite the same way ever again…
The story itself is funny too, in a very dark way.
I was so caught up in The Heart Goes Last that the train taking me home from work arrived at my station and I didn’t realise. Luckily, my station is the last one on the line, because I could have ended up anywhere. Next stop, Dystopia Meadows?
I can’t wait to read another book by Margaret Atwood. I am grateful that she is unafraid of what anybody else thinks about what goes on in her mind, and is happy to share her frightening but funny thoughts with readers.