Well, this one definitely didn’t end up anywhere I would have guessed at the outset. Okay, maybe in general terms it did (though by about three quarters of the way through, frankly, it could have gone anywhere) but the specifics! Just look at the marketing pigeon-holes it could cover: surrealist dystopian sci-fi political espionage jailbreak farce thriller. Believe me, it’s all in there.
Now it’s all done and dusted and I’ve had a moment to breathe, it strikes me the set-up is a bit Toytown. Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Dimple Robotics, Consilience and its TV Evangelist-style pitch. Doris Day and primary colours, the way the residents are herded and infantilised. Charmaine with her chirpy outlook and relentless non-swearing seems made for it. There’s a cynical sheen over it all that creeps up on the reader and as you’d expect with Margaret Atwood, where there is a garden rosy you know there’ll be thorns aplenty.
And what thorns! I guess when you’ve done Dystopia, and done it as well as Atwood, and as often, you really do need to up the game in some department. I could almost believe this is a game of Top Trumps the author played against herself.
Oh, they’ll never believe that!
Let’s do it.
Okay, but the next one’s gotta be even weirder.
It’s the lack of baggage, I think, that wins that reader buy-in. It may well be the strangest idea you’ve ever come across in fiction but the author believes it, and because the author believes it she has simply stated that that’s what it is, so take it or leave it. It’s an object lesson for scribblers everywhere: it might be the oddest thing you’ve ever dreamed up but in the world of your story it’s as every day as death and taxes, and who wants to hear either of those explained in detail?
It serves to make it a really funny book, too, though not underminingly so. It’s never gratuitous enough to derail the tension, and where it does stray close to that line, Atwood is there to drive the thorn home and nip that laugh in the bud. You find the idea of the Elvis robots funny? Well, how about the kid robots… Hmm, not chuckling now.
It’s a book to go along with for the ride. Laugh with it but feel the excitement too, the anxiety over Stan and Charmaine’s fate and the ever increasing tension as every thread is drawn tighter and tighter toward the climax. And when it’s all over maybe have a think about where your own prison walls are, and what’s on the other side should you choose to try and scale them.
The Heart Goes Last was published by Bloomsbury on 24th September 2015 ISBN: 9781408867785
You can find Margaret Atwood on Twitter @MargaretAtwood and on her website margaretatwood.ca