The dire economic situation has forced protagonists Stan and Charmaine out of their comfortable middle-class lives and reduced them to living in their car. They are barely managing to survive when a lifeline is extended and they are given the opportunity to join Positron, a socio-economic experiment based around a privatised prison.
At Positron, all the participants alternate serving one month as prison inmates followed by one month as staff. In this enclave community, based on the quality of life and aspirations of the 1950s, they are guaranteed everything they need to live comfortably and, out of desperation, Charmaine and Stan jump at the chance to be involved.
Initially, Charmaine settles right in, loving the prison town with its ’50s aesthetic, despite her job being the euthanasia of residents/inmates who are unable or unwilling to fit in. Stan is tasked with managing the prison chicken farm and is more skeptical, harbouring doubts about the Big Brother aspects of this futuristic penal colony.
Despite their material comfort, the couple become dissatisfied with each other and soon both become sexually obsessed with their alternates: the couple who live in the house during the months Stan and Charmaine are in the prison.
Until the midpoint of the novel, The Heart Goes Last is a classic Atwood dystopia, examining the concepts of liberty, self-determination and totalitarianism in a taut and suspenseful narrative. Then things get weird.
What initially seems to be a worthy successor to the MaddAddam trilogy swerves into a complex and at times surreal tale of infidelity, blackmail, human-organ trafficking, identity theft and sex-bot manufacturing.
From being concerned with the social and political fallout from economic collapse, the novel seems to instead become focused on the power and exploitation potential of erotic desire. It’s a vertiginous ride with a plot that careens between bedroom farce and science-fiction crime drama with Elvis-impersonator sex-robots and medically induced sex-slaves sprinkled in the heady mix.
As a long-standing fan of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, I admire her trademark inventiveness and wicked humour. She writes beautifully, with verve and energy which pulls you along regardless of any doubt you may have about grim dystopian fiction shape-shifting into a futuristic sex-romp.
The Heart Goes Last may not be, to my mind, the next Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake, but it certainly will not dim my enthusiasm for whatever comes next.
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