Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I’ve never read Margaret Atwood before (I know) so this was my first experience of her work. WHY HAVE I IGNORED HER FOR SO LONG???? Seriously, this book (well, audio book) is amazing.

The book tells the story of Charmaine and Stan, a young couple living in a car and struggling to make ends meet since the economy collapsed. Living on Charmaine’s wages in her low paid, dead end job and spending their nights on the lookout for thugs smashing into cars and beating their inhabitants up, they hear about an amazing opportunity to volunteer for a new way of living. The town of Consilience promises full employment, housing, healthcare and a safe environment to live in – and it’s looking for residents. Seems too good to be true? It is – the catch is that you only spend one month at a time there as you have to ‘volunteer’ to spend the next month in prison. Stan and Charmaine have little choice but to sign up and at first they adapt well, but underneath the company endorsed plastic happiness their secret desires fester and manifest themselves in dangerous affairs.   

I found this book to be such an original concept that was amazingly well written and thoroughly engaging. There’s a very small cast of characters but the way that they all interacted and the impact that they had on each other was really fascinating. It’s amazing how Atwood got such a complicated story out of such a simple set up and still managed to tie it all together with a killer ending.

I loved how allegorical the title of the story was. Literally the heart goes last – it’s the final thing to stop working when someone dies (or is killed). In a figurative sense, even when Stan and Charmaine are interested in other people they still somehow love each other. Again, in Stan’s volatile relationship with his brother they always have each other’s backs. When Charmaine is asked to commit terrible acts she still does so with compassion. And at the end – I can’t say too much, but Atwood beautifully poses the question – can we really override our hearts with our heads? Or are our emotions too strong to break?

I also loved how there was a thrilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel. You know that Consilience is going to be a bad idea but the Stepford Wives style township seems to provide safety and security – two things that Stan and Charmaine are in desperate need of. You can tell that the sickly sweet packaging might look pretty now but will make you ill eventually – but what choice do the couple have? The truly terrifying part though is that in today’s political climate, are we really so far away from setting up social housing experiments along the same lines? And do we already have people living in such desperate need that they would willingly sign up? I hope Donald Trump doesn’t read this and get any ideas (no wonder people have protested against him dressed as Handmaids). 

I actually didn’t like any of the characters in the book, but I somehow ended up rooting for them anyway. As I was listening to the audiobook version I think I didn’t fully absorb all of the story because in places I found it a little hard to follow, so I’d like to read it properly. I also found the voices of the actors playing Stan and Charmaine quite annoying (Charmaine in particular was very nasal) but it was obviously intentional as her over-the-top cheeriness belied her underlying unhappiness and at times manic ability to keep putting on a brave face. By the end of the book, I found that this had actually added another dimension to the story (although twelve hours of listening to it is more than a little grating).   

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, especially fans of dystopian futures and intricate fantasy. I loved it.    

Rating: 8.5/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #4 Listen to an Audiobook.

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