I have been known, on a number of occasions, to credit Margaret Atwood with my love of reading. This isn't actually true, I'd developed a love of books long before I discovered her works. Having said that, A Handmaids Tale, was on of the first 'literary' books that I really, really enjoyed and re-read many times. Or at least, it's one of the first that stands out in my mind. I was in the lower sixth when I first came across it and read it while doing A level English Lit. There had been other books, other plays, that I had enjoyed and read more than once, but for some reason there was something about Atwood's work that really spoke to me.
Over the next couple of years I devoured everything else she'd written, finding other author's that I loved along the way. I've read everything that's she's published since, so when The Heart Goes Last came out, I knew that I had to read it.
There was a slight difference though with this one though; although I'd eagerly read the Oryx and Crake books as soon as they came out and other earlier works, I was a little reticent with this new book. A few years ago now, Atwood started to release a story in a series of instalments. Known as the Positron series, these small ebooks told the story of Stan and his wife Charmaine, who had signed up to live in social experiment, living half the time in a closed housing scheme where work is provided and the other half of the time in prison. After four episodes had been released, the publisher went out of business and the next episode never arrived. The Heart Goes Last is a rewritten (and now completed) novel version of the world and characters introduced to us in the Positron ebooks. I was a little reluctant to start again, albeit in a rewritten version.
All the same, I decided it give it a go. We join Stan and Charmaine before they enter Consilience, the spending half your time in prison experiment. Society, outside of the walls of this project, has fallen apart and people have lost everything, so prison, for half the time and the chance of food, a real house and safety seems like an ideal alternative. While the serial version introduced us straight to their life in Consilience, this book builds up the back story and their previous life first. This did make it a little slow to start, perhaps because having already read the serial version, I knew where this was going? Once we did finally get into Consilience and the 'real' story, the pace picked up a little.
It's an interesting idea, trading your freedom for safety and security, because of course once our characters are in the experiment, both halves of their life are a prison, it's just that one looks like the traditional version of a prison and the other doesn't. Atwood is very skilled at showing us a vision of a future dystopia and how our current actions could lead us there, but while The Handmaids Tale and The Maddaddam trilogy show us a frightening picture of what the future could hold, the picture painted in the Positron/Consilience is just a little too silly, a little too far fetched.
I don't dislike the Heart Goes Last, but I don't love it earlier. Somehow it just misses the mark in a way that her other books don't. I'm not sure if this was intended as a more comic and light hearted look at the future, but somehow it just doesn't quite make it for me. It didn't leave me with that uncomfortable feeling that the other worlds do. If you haven't read a Margaret Atwood book before, then don't start with this one, but if you are already a fan, by all means give it a go, just expect something a little different, a little odder and a little more bizarre than her usual work.