Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the heart goes lastAfter they’d run the first TV ads, the number of online applications was overwhelming. And no wonder: there were so many advantages. Who wouldn’t rather eat well three times a day, and have a shower with more than a cupful of water, and wear clean clothes and sleep in a comfortable bed devoid of bed bugs. Not to mention the inspiring sense of purpose. Rather than festering in some deserted condo crawling with black mould or crouching in a stench-filled trailer where you’d spend the nights beating off dead-eyed teenagers armed with broken bottles and ready to murder you for a handful of cigarette butts you’d have gainful employment, three wholesome meals a day, a lawn to tend a hedge to trim, the assurance that you were contributing to the general good, and a toilet that flushed. In a word, or rather three words: A MEANINGFUL LIFE.

The world is collapsing, the economy falling apart and people are desperate. Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, trying to survive, getting by with what they can. But they are offered a chance: they sign up for a new social experiment, the Positron Project. They will be given stable jobs, a home of their own. In return they just have to swap their freedom every second month for a stay in a prison cell.

Wait, what?

So, aside from the bewildering premise, I had a little bit of trouble with this book. It’s good, disturbing, darkly funny. The set up is dealt with in the first third, things start to go awry in the second third and the final section is like a race to the finish in which a carefully constructed and increasingly horrifying plot propelled me to the end. I defy anyone to try and put the book down in that last third, it’s impossible. However. I didn’t like any of the characters. At all. And I didn’t much care what happened to them. I think that’s what my problem boils down to.

Charmaine is a prissy thing who invests in floral blouses and actually says “darn it” as an expletive. Until she starts having an affair and then she discovers a wild side she didn’t know she had. Stan is a bit of a macho jerk, really, focused almost exclusively on the demands of his genitals. They get embroiled in a spot of corporate espionage with Jocelyn, who seems determined to play her corporate woman role as butch as possible and Aurora whose face was ripped off in a freak roller derby accident. Aside from the roller derby accident, I suppose I can’t complain that all this isn’t believable.

The story is dark and nods at a nightmare of corporate prison farming, human rights abuses in a utopia (almost) gone wrong. The slip from too good to too good to be true is gradual, though you know it’s coming, and once the drama starts to ramp up it becomes utterly ridiculous. I don’t know why I wasn’t in love with this, but I wanted to like it more than I did.

The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood: 3.5 stars.

Read it for: some dark humour over the saccharine holiday period.


#YesAllWomen? On feminist fiction

Once upon a time I wrote a feminist blog. It didn’t start out that way but more and more I noticed the way the stories we told each other sidelined women’s interests, subbed out systemic inequality and constantly buried the lead of an ongoing pattern of violence. So the #yesallwomen stories, a social media response to the shooting in Santa Barbara, stirred both sadness and anger.

However, this is a book blog. So let’s dial it back a notch. Not so much with the hardcore political discourse. Let’s talk about feminist fiction. I started to compile a list of novels that I really enjoyed that were, intentionally or not, feminist in nature. Then I realised something. How devastatingly the stories of white, middle-class women the feminist fiction on my shelves is. Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood sure, both of whom I love, but where’s Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed but recall only vaguely. I will reread in the near future. Meantime this is what I have:

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood“I long to commit the sin of touch.”

A modern classic, I think you either love this one or hate it. Atwood’s blunt and only thinly veiled social commentary is about women as the Madonna and whore writ large across a dystopian Christian fundamentalist US society. Our narrator is called Offred. Because she is the Handmaid “of Fred”, the commandant she has been assigned to be impregnanted by. Let that sink in.

Room, Emma Donoghue

A metaphor for women and children living under an oppressive power in miniature. Ma and Jack eventually escape Old Nick in a desperate escape attempt that involved faking Jack’s death. On the outside, to add insult to injury Ma is criticised on her parenting while in captivity. Great job society!

The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall

Feminist and queer friendly, Sarah Hall’s novel pictures a dystopian future in which food parcels are shipped to Britain from the US and women are forcibly administered with contraception devices and subject to random, routine checks to ensure they are wearing it. Our narrator escapes to a women’s commune where living is hard but at least the State stays out of her pants.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys – “Who you to tell me to go? This house belong to Miss Antoinette’s mother, now it belong to her. Who you to tell me to go?”

Jane Eyre itself is a feminist novel, for its era, but I loved Rhys’ reimagined life of its most marginalised character. Putting Antoinette, Mr Rochester’s one day wife, into the centre of the narrative against a backdrop of colonalism; race, wealth and gender co-mingle to create the perfect storm that drives her to breaking point. And then he locks her in an attic. Charmer.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi – “This time, you’re leaving for good. You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you. I forbid you to come back!”

An autobiographical graphic novel about Strapi’s growing up in revolutionary Iran. Anti-authoritarian, anti-patriarchy, and class-conscious, the novel is a sad, frightening and occasionally funny series of snapshots of a girl’s relationship with Iranian politics and the contrast with western culture. I’m not a fan of graphic novels, but this one is a must read.

I asked around on Twitter and Facebook for more suggestions. I love the good people of the internet. This is what I got:

PBPsoftcover.qxdThe Paperbag Princess – this is a really great nomination. I only remembered it after I saw the illustrations. There’s a blog post on it here.

Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Faber.

Octavia Butler – sci-fi by a feminist, rather than feminist novels per se.

The Collector, John Fowles.

The Millennium series, Stieg Larsson.

The Ancient Future, Traci Harding.

The Phryne Fisher Mysteries series, Kerry Greenwood.

Daughter of the Empire, Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.

The Bloody Chamber,  Angela Carter.

Alice in Wonderland,  Lewis Carroll.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker.

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin.

A Woman of Substance, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Your turn, can you add a favourite novel to the list?

Oh, about the old blog. I became unable to sustain any kind of timely blogging schedule, as you can see from my being unable to uphold my current blog’s sporadic blogging schedule, and in the end I gave it up. It currently sits locked behind a login screen. There are far more reliable witnesses, people with far more spirit and stamina than I, still reliably making excellent points about the culture of silencing, belittling and victimising women. I suggest you read them here, here and here and about a thousand other places.

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