Review | The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood

atwoodIn a dystopian world, humans are offered a chance at escape: join a social experiment and live in a self-contained community where you alternate months between a suburban lifestyle and a prison. The goal for the experiment is a solution to overcrowding in prisons, as one character terms it, timeshare taken to the extreme.

For couple Stan and Charmaine, it beats the hell out of their current existence sleeping in their car and fighting off hoodlums every night. Stan is somewhat suspicious, but the lure of clean towels and a fresh bed proves too much temptation, and they both apply.

The Heart Goes Last is an Atwood novel, and as anyone familiar with the Oryx and Crake trilogy or The Handmaid’s Tale can attest, ay time a society is presented as utopian, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s not. In this case, the corporation that runs the experiment has its eye on profits — familiar Atwood tropes like headless chickens bred for meat make an appearance, and the question of what happens to residents after they pass away raises a chill, given the community’s devotion to waste reduction.

The title refers to the process of dying, the last vestige of humanity right before the moment of death. And as the story progresses, the title takes on much more resonance, and the struggle to hold on to one’s humanity becomes ever more problematized.

The novel begins as with a fairly slick sci-fi tone — we have the seemingly perfect world, the heightened technology and a philosophy taken to the extreme. Throughout, we get hints that the world isn’t quite so perfect — e.g. the chilling reality of Charmaine’s job, prisoners having sex with chickens — but the core conflict is fairly typical sci-fi. It begins with Charmaine having a secret affair with the man who lives in their house while she and Stan are in prison, and launches off into Stan being utterly enmeshed in the reality behind the system’s shiny veneer.

My main concern with this novel is that Atwood appears to squish so many of her ideas in, yet their impact rarely goes beyond a brief appearance. One example is the aforementioned headless chickens which were literally a passing reference. Another is the development of sex droids, which played a key role in the plot, but barely dealt with the problematic nature of their development.

Rather, the sex droids seemed a mere stepping stone toward what I found a truly chilling development (I’ll avoid spoilers here) — and again, this further development did play a part in the plot, but Atwood barely grazes the surface of how problematic this is. There is a great snippet of a conversation where one character challenges the idea that “nobody is exploited,” and another corrects him, “I said nobody feels exploited. Different thing.” There’s so much to unpack within that statement, vis a vis some of the things happening within this world, but then it’s barely touched upon till the very end. Unlike, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, where there are a couple of key driving forces behind the plot, the story in The Heart Goes Last seems to want to go off into multiple directions, without quite settling on one.

The most powerful section of the book for me comes at the very end. Without giving too much away, it involves a procedure and the happiness of a couple of characters. The final pages in particular call into question what happiness entails, and what love really means. It brings up contemporary notions of romantic love, and contrasts it with the sedateness of a long-term relationship, and calls into question under what circumstances we can find happiness within both. These themes were discussed in various ways throughout the novel, but I felt a lot of it got lost underneath the discussions around the prison system and sex droids. There were certainly moments of potency (a revelation about the knitted blue teddy bears is particularly discomfiting), but not quite enough cohesion among them all.

Still, the book made me think, and the ending in particular was problematic in a good way and made me long for more. It’s not my favourite Atwood, but it’s a highly readable tale with Atwood’s trademark wit and quite a few tidbits for thought.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Children Act, Ian McEwan

McEwanI had such high hopes for this book. The question of religious freedom versus one’s well-being is so fraught with nuance that there is never an easy answer. When even individuals can be conflicted about where we stand, personally, on certain issues, how much more difficult must it be for law makers and law enforces, who must weigh the needs of a wide range of people.

The Children Act is about Fiona, a High Court judge, who must decide on the case of seventeen-year-old Adam’s right to refuse life-saving medical treatment due to religious reasons. As a minor, his parents’ wishes must be taken into account, but in this case, they’re all in agreement that he should be allowed to refuse. The question is, should the court intervene and save his life? Can a seventeen-year-old, who has grown up in a devout household, truly be said to be making an informed choice when he decides on religious belief over his own life?

To help her reach a decision, Fiona decides to visit Adam, and her judgement is further complicated by the bond she forms with the boy. Being childless herself, the moral dilemma of allowing a child to die is particularly difficult for her to face.

This leads to a third act plot development that just completely ruined the novel for me. Without giving too much away, I’ll say only that it turned the book ordinary. Despite such a promising set-up, with such nuanced ethical quandaries to face, McEwan instead chooses to focus on Fiona’s personal life, which is a valid choice for sure, yet also one that deflates the novel somewhat. The ending returns somewhat to the question of religion and its role, but I still wish the novel had grappled with its themes just a bit more than it did.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

22536182“There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.” So goes the blurb behind the advance reading copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s a beautiful book, the stylized tree on the cover combined with the text on the back conveying a world of magic within its pages.

And indeed, Ishiguro invites us into an Arthurian style world, where a mist causes forgetfulness, and an elderly couple sets out on a quest to find their son. The language evokes a world of myth, the childlike Middle Earth in Tolkien’s The Hobbit rather than in his later trilogy. The themes are universal — love and forgiveness and the power of memory.

In Giant, amongst the encounters with knights and battles with dragons, amid the backdrop of political turmoil in England, the heart of the story lies in the love between the elderly couple Axl and Beatrice. A fog of forgetfulness has hidden memories of their past together, and at several points the question is raised whether some memories are best left forgotten. This is a particularly poignant question in light of the setting of the story — right at the crux of change, the death knell of the Arthurian age and the beginning of modern Britain. How much of Axl and Beatrice’s Britain will survive in memory, and given the various armed conflicts in their Britain’s history, how much would we ultimately want to remember?

As with any quest, there is a particular point of no return, the crux as it were of the entire adventure. For Axl and Beatrice, this takes the form of a legend about a boatman. According to the legend, couples who truly love each other may be ferried across to an island where they would be together forever. Yet before the trip, the couple must pass a test to prove the depth of their love, and if they fail, they are doomed to wander the island alone for all eternity. It’s a beautiful metaphor for death, and recalls the romantic ideal of love so strong that it lasts beyond death.

There are a lot of beautiful moments in Giant, and the conversations between Axl and Beatrice at times brought me to tears. But something was missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, and it’s possible that my expectations were just too high (it’s an Ishiguro, after all). But I was expecting to be transported. And with such a mystical framework for the narrative, with such lyrical language and mythological encounters, I was expecting to lose myself in the world that the author has created. Yet I wasn’t. The story felt just a tad too crafted, the language just a tad too designed that it never quite clicked into a natural cadence. I appreciated what the author was trying to do, and I liked his characters and his themes, but I never quite fully connected to the story. This is a shame, because I love Ishiguro’s work, and I really wanted to lose myself in this book. It wasn’t bad, but it could have been so much more.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.