I think I’ve mentioned this on The Reader before but I, like many Canadian readers, am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. I am a particularly huge fan of her dystopian works, The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam Trilogy. I generally have a pretty good idea of what big new books are being released, particularly those by my favourite authors. So imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I discovered The Heart Goes Last – an Atwood dystopia that had been released in September that I had never even heard of! I have no idea how that slipped under my radar, but I immediately put it on hold.
The Heart Goes Last takes place sometime in the near future, after a massive economic collapse has devastated most of the world and thrown parts of it into absolute chaos. Charmaine and Stan live on the East Coast of the United States, an area that has been hit particularly hard. They had a nice life together before the collapse, but after losing their jobs and then their house, they’ve been reduced to living in their car and struggling to survive. Crime is rampant, and it’s not unusual for someone to try and break in while they’re sleeping – necessitating constant vigilance.
This isn’t the life that they signed up for. Charmaine remains ever optimistic and positive, something that begins to grate on Stan more and more as time goes on. Their relationship is deteriorating, it’s becoming ever more dangerous to live on the streets, and they’re basically at their wits end. And that’s when Charmaine sees a commercial for the Positron Project and they finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. The Positron Project works like this: for one month, participants will live and work in the town of Consilience. Homes and jobs are provided for them, they are guaranteed a roof over their heads, food on their table, and all the creature comforts of a nice life. The catch is that for the other month, they must live in the Positron Prison, where they will live with other inmates and work different jobs particular to the Prison. While they’re in prison, their alternates will live in their home, and then at the end of the month they switch – Charmaine and Stan go back home and their unknown alternates (who they are forbidden from ever knowing) go into the prison.
At first everything is great – they’re happy and well taken care of, their relationship is thriving, and even life inside of the prison is comfortable and nice. And then things start to get messy when Charmaine begins an affair with one of her alternates and Stan develops an extremely sexually-charged obsession for the other. Things quickly start to fall apart as Stan and Charmaine are separated from each other and each begin to learn the truth behind what is really happening at the Positron Project.
As ever, Atwood gives us a beautifully imagined and fleshed out dystopian world. From the mean streets outside of Consilience, to the sex-robot factory inside of Positron, it is pure Atwood and almost reminiscent of MaddAddam (there’s even a small mention of growing chickens with no heads). It’s similar enough to our current world, and yet startlingly different in a way that makes you think “this could actually happen – but I really don’t want it to.” This, combined with the intricate plot that keeps you guessing until the last page, makes for a really immersive reading experience. Which is good, because the characters are definitely meh. This came as a surprise to me, but I found a lot of the characters were quite flat. They were all extremely unlikable (which I don’t usually have a problem with, if done well), but more than that I just found they were underdeveloped. Stan was probably the most fleshed out and believable character, but it was to the point that I really hated him by the end of the book. I just didn’t really understand their motives for doing what they did and I really wasn’t rooting for any of them, even Charmaine. However, if you are a fan of Margaret Atwood dystopia, don’t let this deter you! Even though I was annoyed with the characters most of the time, I still could not put this book down until I figured out what was really going on (and you don’t figure it all out until the very last page!).
For similar titles, check out:
Mandibles: a Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver also takes place in an America devastated by an economic collapse. It follows the Mandibles, a once prosperous family, and looks at how each member of each generation of the family is affected by and deals with this new way of life. “The Mandibles is about money. Thus it is necessarily about bitterness, rivalry, and selfishness—but also about surreal generosity, sacrifice, and transformative adaptation to changing circumstances.” – publisher
In The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, women are dying en masse and no one really knows why. “Set in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman’s struggle to become independent of her parents. As the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart, Jessie begins to question her parents’ publisher
attitudes, their behavior, and the very world they have bequeathed her.” –
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey is more of an action-packed dystopian story, but has a similarly eerie “this could totally happen” vibe. In Wyoming, a little girl reads people’s darkest secrets by the way they fold their arms. In New York, a man sensing patterns in the stock market racks up $300 billipublisher on. In Chicago, a woman can go invisible by being where no one is looking. They’re called “brilliants,” and since 1980, one percent of people have been born this way. Nick Cooper is among them; a federal agent, Cooper has gifts rendering him exceptional at hunting terrorists. His latest target may be the most dangerous man alive, a brilliant drenched in blood and intent on provoking civil war. But to catch him, Cooper will have to violate everything he believes in—and betray his own kind.” –