Originally published in instalments (or at least partially published in instalments, we read ‘I’m Starved for You’ back in 2012), The Heart Goes Last is Margaret Atwood’s latest foray into definitely-not-sci-fi – I think we like to call it speculative fiction in grown-up literary fiction world – and as with her Maddaddam trilogy, Atwood’s fictions arise from the edges of where we are right now (hence, we suppose, her desire to refer to these kinds of stories as speculative): specifically, an America where people are living hand to mouth, where corporations rarely do anything for the better of, you know, actual people, where solutions only ever benefit the cloak and dagger, hidden behind a curtain Oz figures despite being dressed up as benefits for all to make the world a better place.
Stan and Charmaine once had jobs (we won’t kid ourselves and say good jobs – she was in a care home, he worked in computing but not, we sense, the Silicon Valley ‘hey we can ALL be millionaires’ world); now they live in their car. Their marriage is not what it was (if it ever was anything – the good old days shimmer in the sunhaze). Periodically they might have some back seat loving but her heart isn’t in it and he knows that. Money, or the lack thereof, has them in its grip. When Charmaine spies an opportunity (whilst working a bar job and considering whether to follow the path outlined by two young ladies of the … ahem… night), she and Stan jump lickety-split into Consilience, a twin town in which residents alternate between a month as ideal residents, enjoying the high life, and a month spent as inmates in a nearby prison. If you think hey, that sounds like the ideal solution to all of the world’s problems right now, you’d not be a million miles away from Stan and Charmaine at the kick off. The Heart Goes Last charts the progress of their disaffection.
Alternating between Stan (who has a job as a mechanic in his off months and fantasises about the lady he imagines living in his house during prison time) and Charmaine (who jumps into an affair with the male resident of the house she shares), Atwood has a lot of pseudo-Shakespearian fun with mishaps and imaginings (the lady Stan fantasises about turns out to be his wife; leastways until the ‘other’ lady in their shared habitat learns a thing or two and starts to put Stan through his paces), before embracing the fact that The Heart Goes Last might be the most out and out comedic novel Atwood has written in many a year (with effete Elvis wannabes and brain treatments that make beautiful women love teddybears). And yet, even as you surrender to the silliness (it is quite silly at times, you go with it), there is a serious and dark undertone best manifested in the way Charmaine is forced to consider her own free will at the climax of the book. Atwood’s fans would expect nothing less.
Any Cop?: It’s an enjoyable novel that grapples heartily with the world we live in and the one that we are moving into.