24 September 2015
Margaret Atwood’s latest novel is an incisive critique of our current society. Neoliberalism and the prison industrial complex, as well as nostalgia for a non-existent, rosy mid-20th century, all cop a wry humoured nudging. Not a bashing; Atwood would never be so unsubtle.
Charmaine and Stan are at their wits’ end. Struggling to get by in the depths of an economic depression and a society barely holding itself together, they live in their car and can see no way out of their deepening poverty. Fortunately, they are eligible to participate in a well funded social experiment, the Positron Project. They will be provided with a house, with employment, and with the safety of a gated community, in return for spending every second month as prisoners in the Positron Prison.
Given the blurb, I initially expected something akin to the Stanford Prison Experiment, but Atwood quickly does away with that suspicion and takes a much less clichéd route. The Positron Project conceals secrets, both in the constantly surveilled “idyllic” community, and in the prison complex. Charmaine and Stan also become involved with their counterparts, those who reside in their house while the they are in prison, though contact between alternates is strictly prohibited.
What follows is a strange tale of revelations, secrets, guilt and passion. This near and all too believable future is filled with hypocrisies and with Atwood’s typical humour. As usual, Atwood’s writing is superb and the plot gripping. There is tension and absurdity, and not a small bit of horror. The characters are genuine and flawed people.
Atwood delivers her thematic messages without cliche and without hammering it into the readers’ head. The reader is allowed to ponder for themselves the meaning of things like free will and the nature of love. Yet this is not a heavy book. It is a quick and thoroughly diverting read.
Whether you are an Atwood newcomer or a long time fan, The Heart Goes Last is sure to provoke, tantalise and please. Literary and sci-fi elements combine to create a very satisfying novel.