The Heart Goes Last. Margaret Atwood

IMG_0104I am going to say straight out that Margaret Atwood is one of my all time favourite authors. That’s the bias out of the way. If I was important enough to go on Desert Island discs then I think that her novels would come with me. I read her work multiple times, and each time I find something different. Partially this reflects who I am at the time, and my concerns, worries and cares, as well as my experiences. I think my favourite novels are the ones that imagine and realise a dystopian future- the return to fundamentalism in The Handmaid’s Tale, the ecological disaster fuelled by free market capitalism in the Maddadam trilogy and so I was incredibly pleased to see her new novel in pride place in my school library (I am a teacher) especially when I read the back. A dystopian future created by the free market (economic disaster this time) focusing on a couple who have lost their jobs, their house, and currently live in their car, which also acts as an escape vehicle from those with even less. Offered the chance of escape, they jump at the chance- a promise of a clean house, jobs and protection. All they have to do is promise to spend every other month in prison. And it’s not even a real prison. You know something bad is happening, warnings are flagged up all over the place, but quite what the bad thing is, or bad things are is not always easy to identify. Whom can you trust? Despite continuous surveillance (everyone is spying on everybody else) you can never be quite sure who to trust? When characters are lying to each other, they are just as capable as lying to the reader, and they do, as often as they lie to each other. Everything is a commodity. Belongings are cherished as babies, and if everything has an economic value, what isn’t for sale? With her customary wit, insight and imagination, Atwood creates an all too believable hell in which any of us could find ourselves (except possibly the super-rich), and as inequality grows and haves get more and the have-nots lose out more often and more frequently, Atwood feeds on fears that have a credible basis in reality. We are doing this to ourselves.

If you have never read any of Margaret Atwood’s previous novels then this would be as good a place to start as any. Personally I prefer her futuristic novels rather than those based on the past. While I admire the research and craft of her novels such as Alias Grace, I don’t enjoy them as much, although they still chime with my beliefs and ideas as much as any other. While crafting incredible stories, Atwood makes wider points about society, her novels always reflect the inequalities in society, most frequently the position of women. Whether her characters are harking back to an imaginary golden age, or desperate to move forward into the future, the struggle against inequality and societies expectations of the male and female are made clear, and the impact of these notions on individuals are vividly illustrated. Capitalism as a political system and ideology also comes in for its deserved share of criticism- that earning money should be the driving force of all people and all societies results in horror, and she demonstrates with clarity the tiny steps we take towards a previously unacceptably terrifying reality. It feels like a journey we are already on.

In short, read this book, and read all her other novels. She is genius.

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