16. ‘The heart goes last’ by Margaret Atwood.

I can’t help it – I see a Margaret Atwood and I simply have to read it! And I think that since the TV adaptation of the Handmaids Tale, more and more people are realising what a wonderfully twisted, dystopian world this author is capable of creating. And none more so than in this book, which started life as an e-book series. It explores desperation, sex, corporate control, sex robots, humiliation and rebellion, with lashings of dark humour and self deception, and does so at a cracking pace.

Welcome to a post financial crash America. Charmaine and Stan are victims of the downturn having lost their jobs and thus their modest home;  living in their car, scavenging food, selling blood, and just surviving on the tips Charmaine makes working in a bar where drugs and sex are top of the menu.  They didn’t fall into this impasse through any fault of their own – they are simply victims of fate, like so many ‘normal’ people are these days when they find themselves on the sharp end of economic circumstances beyond their control. Charmaine worked as an entertainer in an old peoples home, Stan worked for a robotics company, making self serve checkouts more ‘user friendly’. As they struggle to eke out an existence and avoid even more desperate people who have turned to crime, they console themselves with the thought that they still have each other. It’s a situation which is, alarmingly, not far-fetched in today’s world.

Stan’s brother, Conor, makes an early appearance – he’s doing well for himself, having successfully turned to crime, but Stan and Charmaine still yearn for a normal life, and when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project, despite Conor’s advice, they sign up.

The Positron Project offers ‘lucky’ applicants a job and a home in the basically walled town of Consilience, where the ambience is decidedly 50’s – the decade when apparently most people identified as being ‘happy’. Whats the catch? They have to ‘share’ a house with another couple, their ‘Alternates’, spending a month in the house and then a month in the on site prison facility, so they and the Alternates never actually meet – in fact there is a company imposed ban on inter-Alternate communication. They must perform the tasks set for them by the Corporation, Stan on the chicken farm, and Charmaine administering lethal injections to the ‘Misfits’ of this closed society.  Initially, they delight in the house, the security, the society, but as they become more comfortable, sex rears its head (of course!) and while Charmaine launches into a steamy affair with ‘Max’, Stan becomes obsessed with Max’s ‘partner’, Jasmine, after finding a steamy note from her under the fridge.  Can you guess who Jasmine really is?

From here on the novel really picks up speed. The dark truth behind the Positron management and what they are really doing. The sex robots they manufacture, alarmingly including the Kiddybot, neatly packaged in a white nightie with an accompanying teddy ‘for realism’. The harvesting of babies blood, the ‘wiping and imprinting’ of peoples brains to create sex slaves, daring escapes, difficult choices. A posse of gay Elvis impersonators, and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who’s in love with a soft toy.

Self-deception, infidelity, spies, escapes, this book has it all. As with the Handmaid, it’s alarming in its plausibility at times. The characters are drawn well and appropriately – despite Charmaine’s undeniably steamy affair, what she really wants are Stan, a comfortable, neat clean house, a baby, a garden – all very Fifties and Stepford Wife-ish. What Stan seems to really want is to take care of Charmaine. And all this is cleverly exploited at the conclusion….but I’m not going to spoil it for you!

It’s a big thumbs up here, no surprise to anyone who knows my predilection for Ms Atwood’s work. And, despite the undeniable worry that ‘this could happen’, I know Mum’s view was the same as mine – one always hopes that there are enough ordinary, decent people out there to prevent situations like this really happening….one hopes.

As always, if you would like to have Mum’s copy of this marvellous book to add to your own bookshelf, please contact me and I will happily post it off to you to read and enjoy!

 

 

10. ‘Hagseed’ by Margaret Atwood.

Brilliant, brilliant writing by one of Mum and I’s favourite authors! This re-imagining  of Shakespeare’s Tempest is another in the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative, (regular readers of my blog will remember me reviewing Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler earlier this year), and as always, Ms Atwood has delivered an outstanding piece of work. It’s fabulous.

This is written with such energy that it feels like a story Ms Atwood would have written anyway, if the Bard had not already done so. It’s a magical eulogy to Shakespeare, taking you through an extraordinary reworking of the original tale, but including nods to contemporary culture; thrilling to anyone who knows the original play, but equally compelling to those who don’t. Our hero, Felix, was the artistic director of a theatre company until he was betrayed by his assistant who orchestrates a coup that destroys Felix, leaving him in self imposed isolation for years. Not on an island, but deep in the Canadian countryside in a ramshackle cabin with only his imaginary daughter, Miranda, for company – his wife and child are long deceased, and the grief he still feels at the loss of his real three year old Miranda to meningitis had fuelled his plans to stage his masterpiece, a wildly conceptual version of the Tempest, now stolen from him by the villainous assistant, Tony.

After twelve years of navel gazing and almost endearingly strange behaviour, eventually he concludes that there are only two things left for him to do – “two projects that could still hold satisfaction”. First, he needs to get his play back. Secondly, he wants revenge. The scheming Tony and his evil cohort Sal must suffer for their treatment of him. As Felix Phillips, he is finished, so he reinvents himself, and it is as Mr Duke that he takes on a job in a correctional facility in a Literacy through Literature programme of Shakespeare….where he directs the prisoners in, of course, The Tempest! This is just so skilful. We have now got a play within a play, within a novel, and it is thrilling!

The prison scenes are wonderful. The characters are so real, and deftly handled. There’s no foul language allowed in class or rehearsal save that which comes from Shakespeare, whence comes the title, hagseed. I’ve had a large fridge magnet for years, its been around the world with me, featuring some of Shakespeare’s choicest insults, so I particularly enjoyed this.

And, yes, Felix succeeds in both his projects. The ending is a tumultuous climax with a footnote of an analysis by the prisoners on what should happen next in The Tempest. Fabulous. This book of Mum’s has already been claimed by a dear friend living in Indonesia, but I strongly advise you to find yourself a copy; it’s one of the best books you will read this year!