Living in their car, surviving on tips, SCharmaine 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.
So I originally planned on posting this review on Monday. Then I didn’t. Why? Because I was struggling with how I felt about the novel and what I had written didn’t feel right – and it didn’t, if I’m honest, feel honest which I always try to be.
My problems started with the fact that I love Margaret Atwood. I have read the majority of her books and I can (honestly this time) say there isn’t one I haven’t liked and a lot of which I’ve loved. That includes the Maddaddam trilogy which I know not everyone enjoyed and did, I admit, take some getting used to. Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the first book though, the language and the imagry, I was hooked on the stories of a disparate group of people trying to survive in a world wiped out by man-made plagues and problems.
There are many of the same themes in The Heart Goes Last. The world hasn’t been wiped out by a virus but it has been hit by the financial collapse and the central characters, Stan and Charmaine are struggling as a result having lost their jobs and home and finding themselves living in a car. When Charmaine sees an ad for a town of Consilience where she can have a house again, clean sheets, a job in return for living an alternate lifestyle as a prisoner every other month she can’t say no – and, because he loves her, neither can Stan. Like his brother tells him though if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
At first, all seems well but slowly the dream becomes a nightmare. They can’t leave Consilience and they can’t talk to the outside world. There are people watching all the time and big, black, cars silently cruise the streets. Big corporations with no moral compass are in charge. Greed, lust, and power are what they care about, not helping people live better lives as they promised. Not unless you are rich, of course, and can pay for the organs harvested from prisoners who won’t reform or the baby blood sold to make you young again.
These are all things that were touched on in the Maddaddam books and they are all things that scare me because they feel like they could be real and make me think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The thing with this book though, was that I found I didn’t care. I didn’t feel scared. And that’s because I didn’t believe in any of the characters or the world Atwood had created in Consilience and beyond. I wanted to, I really did, but I didn’t. Instead, Stan and Charmaine annoyed me. I found them weak and ineffectual. The other central characters were just as bad, flat and stereotypical. I really didn’t care if they did have their minds wiped because Ed, the man in charge, felt like it.
Even Atwood’s language, which I normally find paints a picture for me, let me down. It felt like she was going through the motions before beating me over the head with her message in the final pages – just in case I hadn’t understood. This was originally a series of magazine articles I think or short stories, and maybe that was the problem. Maybe if I’d read them as that I’d feel differently. But, unfortunately, I don’t – which means (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) this wasn’t one for me. Sorry!