The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood review – madcap life-swapping dystopia

The Canadian author’s latest novel recasts modern America in dark comic terms

In recent years, Margaret Atwood – now in her mid-70s – has put many younger writers to shame with her enthusiastic early adopting of new technologies, and her latest book, The Heart Goes Last, began life as a series of four episodes on the digital-winning platform Byliner in 2012-13. Now expanded into a full-length novel, the story inhabits the kind of plausible dystopia familiar to admirers of Atwood’s brand of speculative fiction. It’s more overtly comic than her most recent books, the MaddAddam trilogy, though it treats the same broad themes: economic and environmental decline, the social and bio-engineering we employ in the vain hope of saving ourselves, and the speed with which the most well-intentioned experiments fall prey to greed and corruption.

Stan and Charmaine have fallen on hard times, through no fault of their own. At the start of the novel Stan has lost his modest job in robotics and their house has been repossessed. Now living in their car, they fend off nightly attacks by marauding gangs looking to steal the few possessions they have left. They live on fast food and sell their blood for small change; most people they know have turned to crime or prostitution. This is not some bleak post-apocalyptic future but a vision of the present in the collapsing manufacturing cities of the north-eastern US, where ordinary people find themselves on the sharp end of economic trends they can’t even comprehend. “Then everything went to ratshit. Overnight, it felt like. Not just in his own personal life: the whole card castle, the whole system fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window.”

Stan is saved from joining the criminal underworld by an advertisement for the Positron Project, a bold new social experiment intended to solve the problem of urban decay. Inside the divided town of Positron/Consilience, those who sign up are given a neat suburban house and full employment – in return, they swap their home every alternate month for a cell in Positron prison, while their “Alternates” take their turn at freedom. The prison stint is tolerable because their fellow prisoners are not actually criminals – the real cons have been mysteriously “relocated”. There is no internet access to the rest of the world. No uncensored news gets in or out.

At first, the novelty of clean sheets and safety allows them to ignore the subtle forms of control at work in the town. But it soon becomes clear that life in Consilience is – to no one’s surprise – far from the dream they’d imagined. Inside the prison, Charmaine is asked to carry out the Special Procedure for getting rid of undesirable elements who might threaten the Project, while Stan finds himself forced to allow his fellow prisoners private access to the livestock sheds he supervises. “What did that make him? A chicken pimp. Better that than dead.”

As both Stan and Charmaine break the rules by becoming sexually involved with their Alternates, they find themselves unwittingly drawn into a sinister plot involving an illegal trade in human organs, sex robots, the sale of baby blood to stave off ageing, eugenics, mind-control operations, knitted blue teddies and a gang of Elvis impersonators. It’s gloriously madcap, though the heightened comic tone keeps the reader at one remove from her characters, whom we only ever know by their first names. There are poignant moments, but if the level of emotional engagement feels more superficial here, Atwood compensates with pace and comic timing; you only pause in your laughter when you realise that, in its constituent parts, the world she depicts here is all too horribly plausible.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury Publishing, £18.99). To order a copy for £14.99, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

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