Home > A mind in dystopia – The Express Tribune

A mind in dystopia – The Express Tribune

‘The Heart Goes Last’ moves away from dark corner­s of life, explor­es femini­sm and tyrann­y


When life takes you down, as it sometimes does, the two things that have brought me back to the light are classical music and knowing that I live in the age of Margaret Atwood. The author is like a sorcerer with words, breathing life into things that have passed or not happened.

She says that a word after a word is power, but you can know that for her, this power of writing transcendent stories is effortless. That is what makes it feel like you are in space staring at an insignificant you back on earth. This is why many ‘How to be a Novelist’ books caution you about writing about the weather, “unless you are Margret Atwood.”

Perhaps this is also the reason many can feel intimidated by her craft. The trick to get over that crippling awe which I discovered when I first read her classic, The Handmaiden’s Tale in college, is to forget that you are reading Atwood – just as you have to forget you are listening to Mozart, Beethoven or Bach – otherwise there is no listening and there is no reading. Between the first book and her latest, The Heart Goes Last, one moves surely and securely away from the dark corners of life and explores a world of feminism, tyranny and dystopias. Then your personal fights find that the devil can be named and you root for the hero and want wrath on the villain who often starts as a nice enough guy with an untamed ambition.

The Heart Goes Last is Atwood’s best work because it draws you in like you are eating pine nuts — opening shells is half the fun. Before you know it there is a pile of shells your mind has unlearned and your palette is on fire with new flavours that are both familiar and strange. The language is very modern and is loaded with the swear words that make characters real.

Charmaine, the co-protagonist, steps into the book with big blue eyes, blond hair and a predisposition to please her husband. Led by the voice of her Grandma Win, she lives by her words that what cannot be cured must be endured. So Charmaine endures Stan, her husband, right from the point they took a honeymoon picture to the point that poverty and economic turmoil led them to live in a car perpetually.

One of the saddest things about falling through the cracks is not the discomfort of rummaging through bins for food, the foul breath or the lack of showers. It is what inevitably follows in the form of exploitation. Positron and Consilience are rotation prison networks that promise showers, lots of white meat, clean sheets and even the occasional desert. So they sign up into this den of secrecy where they are sure that the only way out is through death, but that seemed far away then. To Stan and Charmaine it seemed like a good idea at the time. The rules could be learned. Every month, Charmaine and Stan lived their prison jobs and the other month they lived in their home. Also, their home was shared by Alternates when they were away.

Underneath this tech-induced, bio-engineered, despotic world lies a very simple lesson that we would all do well to learn — take care of the ones you love. This too will bring us to the light on our darkest days.

Title: The Heart Goes Last
Author: Margaret Atwood
Pages: 320
Publisher: Nan A Talese
ISBN-10: 0385540353
ISBN-13: 978-0385540353

The writer is a freelance writer based in Islamabad. She blogs at aishasarwari.wordpress.com.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 4th, 2015.

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