The latest novel by Margaret Atwood is the story of a couple trying to adjust to life in the midst of an economic crisis. Stan and Charmaine are forced to live in a car, are vulnerable to the threat of gangs and struggle to make ends meet on the meagre proceeds from Charmaine’s bar work. Then, a chance arises that could save them – a place on the ‘Positron Project’ in the town of Consilience. Charmaine has her heart set on it – a house, a job and the security she craves, but is this utopian world all it seems? Is it too good to be true?
‘CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE. DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!’
In exchange for a seemingly blissful suburban life, residents of Consilience have to sacrifice their freedom. Every second month they swap their house for a cell at Positron Prison, switching with their ‘Alternates’ – other couples who they are not permitted contact with. However, it doesn’t take long for both Stan and Charmaine’s curiosity to kick in and they develop obsessions with their counterparts which could prove detrimental to their marriage.
‘There was a lipstick kiss: hot pink. No, darker: some kind of purple. Not violet, not mauve, not maroon…’
Sexual desire is a key theme running throughout the novel. Within the walls of the town with its uniformity and conformity, the residents, including our protagonists are searching for the right person – or robot in some cases to fulfil their needs. This leads to the novels more bizarre moments as the characters sometimes extreme and surreal desires are revealed.
‘She strokes the man’s head, smiles with her deceptive teeth…’
Aside from the sexual elements, more previously unknown aspects to the characters personalities start to emerge as they settle into life in the project. What I enjoyed most about this novel was how your opinion of a character can change. What you thought you knew about Stan and Charmaine and their personalities was brought into question. There were surprising twists in the story so you are never quite sure who can be trusted. There were moments where life at the Project becomes more sinister, and hidden motives revealed. Throughout there was a sense of unease – what is really happening within the towns walls? Who is on their side and who is against them?
In the later stages of the novel, the story takes an increasingly surreal turn. Once again fuelled by sexual desire we are introduced to some strange practices including the manufacture of ‘sexbots’, Elvis impersonators and knitted blue teddy bears. Whilst I felt at times it was a bit too bizarre for my reading tastes it did add to the unpredictability of the book – you never knew who or what was going to greet you on the next page!
The Heart Goes Last is certainly a strange novel but I found it gripping and was keen to find out more about Consilience and the fate of those who reside there. Beneath the dark humour, the sex and bizarre fetishes there are important messages here about conformity, trust, guilt and our capacity for love.