The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Once I started The Heart Goes Last, I couldn’t put it down until I’d read the last word. When I did, I had a perverse smile on my face; Heart sent me gaga, over the moon, triggered euphoria. I was ecstatic. It’s dark, yes – very dark – but it’s darkly comic and sexy. For purposes of disclosure, you should know I’m an unabashed Atwood fan; for full disclosure, you should know that my colleague (another unabashed Atwood fan) was not-at-all on-board with Heart: ‘I just couldn’t buy the whole conceit,’ she told me, ‘Why the prison?’
Why the prison? Surprise! For years, private prison companies in the US have been striking deals that contain clauses to guarantee high prison occupancy rates. These prisons are private corporations that profit from keeping their beds at capacity. State officials scramble to meet contractual lockup quotas to avoid using taxpayer money to pay for any empty beds. In Heart, a near-future dystopian prison community serves as the perfect setting to tackle topics such as surveillance, organ-trafficking, and wealth inequality. The conceit of the novel is based on a disastrous global financial crisis which leaves millions out of work, including our protagonists – Charmaine and Stan – who struggle to survive while living out of their car. The glossy TV ad which promises them a life of comfort and a proper home is too hard to refuse. The hitch is they must agree to live in a prison half the time: one month in prison, one month in their home within the walled community. As the story progresses, Atwood tackles other relevant topics such as the rise of artificial intelligence, infidelity, identity, and the subjugation of women. Everyone is horrible, and this is especially true of Charmaine, but in a sweet, apple-pie-and-gingham sort of way.
This is Atwood’s most powerful and relevant work since The Handmaid’s Tale, which shot her to worldwide fame in 1985. It portrays a near-future which is dark, believable and perversely cutthroat. As the title implies, this book is about sex and love, but with a twist. The Heart Goes Last is compulsive, must-read fiction.
Ed Moreno works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.