After The Hunger Games and Divergent, post-apocalyptic stories have exploded in the world of fiction. With so many similar books being released in the dystopian genre, a story about a married couple choosing to live in a prison seems intriguing and original. In her typical sharp-witted style, Margaret Atwood pens an unusual satire in her recent novel, The Heart Goes Last.
The Positron Project is the perfect solution for homeless American couple Stan and Charmaine. After living in their car during an economic crisis, their country ravaged by crime and impoverishment, the prospect of a new life with The Project is exciting. It’s a simple idea: residents get the opportunity to live in the lovely town of Consilience with full employment and a house of their own. The only catch is that on alternating months, they must reside in Positron Prison, divided by gender. The "inmates" spend their time doing menial labour while enjoying many of the same benefits as Consilience citizens. To Stan and Charmaine, being inmates every other month seems like a minor price to pay in exchange for a fresh start. After all, it couldn’t be any worse than it is outside.
As you would expect, life in Consilience gets worse — much worse. The city is walled off with airtight gates and security. At first, Stan and Charmaine are just relieved to be living in an actual house; the months they spend in Positron are surprisingly comfortable. But when Charmaine begins a tumultuous love affair with the man who lives in their house every other month as an Alternate, the couple become tangled in a dangerous web of lies and secrets.
In terms of plot, The Heart Goes Last was quite compelling; the ‘love-to-hate’ villains, underhanded schemes and endless plot twists made it difficult to put the book down. However, the characters are a different story. The main characters (more so Charmaine) were unbelievably naïve. Regardless of their ever-worsening circumstances, such as euthanizing helpless prisoners or being forced to live as mock spouses of Positron elites, the pair hardly questioned the gravity of the situations, let alone tried to escape them. It was difficult to sympathize with Stan and Charmaine; they seemed to have little depth or ambition. The secondary characters were more complex with stronger motives, but still lacked a sense of deeper emotion to make them believable. Perhaps Atwood was attempting to make a point about human nature in writing shallow characters with no moral backbone, or perhaps the story simply lacked true direction.
The novel took some bizarre and interesting turns — at one point, Stan became a stowaway in an Elvis costume— but ultimately, it was a weak story. What could have been a satisfyingly rich tale filled with danger and adventure was tempered by unremarkable characters and a sloppy resolution. After a long series of plot twists, the ending felt rushed and unconvincing.
Although Atwood made some thought-provoking points about morality and humanity’s desensitization to violence, The Heart Goes Last was a piece of mediocre work. The story opened with a sense of originality, but eventually trailed into a confusing social commentary with no real purpose. Readers should expect more from this great Canadian storyteller.
This piece was edited by Mathew Ouellet, the feature editor of CanCulture.