Extract from the book:
‘Stan lets his mind float free. Time is passing; whatever will happen to him is about to happen. There’s not a thing he can do about it.
Are these my last minutes? he asks himself. Surely not. Despite his earlier moment of panic, he’s now oddly calm. But not resigned, not numbed. Instead he’s intensely, painfully alive. He can feel his own thunderous heartbeat, he can hear the blood surging through his veins, he can sense every muscle, every tendon. His body is massive, like rock, like granite; though possibly a little soft around the middle.
I should have worked out more, he thinks. I should have done everything more. I should have cut loose from…from what? Looking back on his life, he sees himself spread out on the earth like a giant covered in tiny threads that have held him down. Tiny threads of petty cares and small concerns, and fears he took seriously at the time. Debts, timetables, the need for money, the longing for comfort; the earworm of sex, repeating itself over and over like a neural feedback loop. He’s been the puppet of his own constricted desires.’
About a year ago I was listening to a daytime radio interview with Margaret Atwood talking about her latest book. She came across as a breath of fresh air and there was a vibrant sense of fun about her. Most readers would probably have started with one of her more notable works such as the classic The Handmaid’s Tale or the Man Booker winning The Blind Assassin. But, after listening to her talk about The Heart Goes Last, she really sold the idea of the book to me and it was with great pleasure that I recently snapped it up at the local library.
The first thing that struck me as I read her work was how enjoyable it was. Atwood is a writer who clearly excels at spinning an entertaining and imaginative yarn. Her characters and plot lines should be too silly to take seriously, but she somehow makes them work in her own unique way. Even when this novel took some more than ridiculous turns near the end, I was still enthralled and glued to the pages.
Atwood based the premise for this book on the real life growing industry of prisons in North America. People forget that prisons generate a lot of money and they are fast becoming more of a business interest than a social service in the modern world. Prisons create a demand for jobs, goods and services in the local community while also producing some goods and services themselves. Atwood takes this idea and has a lot of fun with it through her creation of the Positron Project.
The novel is set in the not too distant future where jobs are scarce and lawlessness is rife along the Rustbelt roads of America. It is here that we meet Stan and Charmaine living in their car and barely surviving. Each night that they go asleep, they live in fear of attack. Stan has no job prospects and Charmaine earns close to nothing in a dive bar. The couple soon see ads about the Positron Project where volunteers are given eternal job security and shelter in exchange for a life behind bars every second month. While you are in the slammer, your ‘alternate’ then lives in your home and goes about their daily life until the roles are once again reversed on the next switchover day. The catch is that once you are signed up to this social experiment, you are signed up for life. Such is their desperation that Stan and Charmaine gladly sign up for this project.
The ‘alternates’ concept really makes this book a success. Its not long before Stan and Charmaine become fixated with the couple who stay in their new home when they do their month in prison. In many ways, this alternate couple are everything that they are not. They measure themselves by their ideals of their alternates. They long to have what the other couple seem to have. It is not long before feelings of obsession, sexual desire and mistrust begin to take over.
Life within the community’s walls brings its own pressures too. At stages, this book reminded me of the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show. Everyone keeps to their suburban style house, trimming their suburban style hedges and they all travel to work like clockwork on their individual scooters. All is well as long as you play by the rules. But what happens to those who don’t? Rumours begin to spread about those who conveniently ‘disappear.’ The black, ominous surveillance cars constantly glide by noiselessly keeping an eye on everything and everyone.
In this fishbowl environment, it is only a matter of time before the cracks begin to appear and Atwood writes at a prompt speed that keeps the story ticking over nicely. At no stage did I feel that her tale lacked energy or purpose. Instead, I read this book feeling wholly entertained and engaged as the dark side of the characters emerged.
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Yes. This is a read that is full of imagination and fun. It never lets up and mixes the sublime with the ridiculous to great effect. Atwood is definitely an author who I will investigate further in the near future!