“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” (Margaret Atwood)

This is my contribution to Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at Buried in Print. Do join in with #MARM!

As a teenager I fell in love with Atwood and read all her novels and short stories, most of her poetry and a collection of interviews. Then I’m not sure what happened, the MaddAddam trilogy didn’t appeal to me as much and I probably hadn’t read any Atwood since The Blind Assassin in 2000. In this year of my book-buying ban, I found I had two Atwoods in the TBR, so here they are.

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Firstly, The Heart Goes Last (2015), my first Atwood in about 18 years, and from the first page I realised I needed her back in my life. She is such an accomplished writer that you know you’re in safe hands. She knows what she’s doing: the characters will be believable, the plot will carry you through, she has something important to say. What more could you want? This being Atwood, the story is terrifying, funny, and horribly believable.

Charmaine and Stan are living in their car. Time and place are unspecified, but there’s every reason to assume it’s now, in the United States. The recession has bitten and they have lost their jobs and their homes, along with many others. Poverty and deprivation have led to rising crime and they are at risk of violent attack. Unsurprisingly, their marriage is under strain:

“Charmaine says why don’t they go jogging? They used to do that when they had their house: get up early, jog before breakfast, then a shower. It made you feel so full of energy, so clean. But Stan looks at her like she’s out of her mind, and she sees that yes, it would be silly, leaving the car unattended with everything in it…and putting themselves at risk because who knows what might be hiding in the bushes? Anyway where would they jog? Along the streets with the boarded-up houses?”

Then one day, when Charmaine is working in a bar, she sees aa television advert for Positron. Positron offers a place to live and full employment.

“She can feel the griminess of her body, she can smell the stale odour coming from her clothes, from her hair, from the rancid fat smell of the chicken-wings place next door. All of that can be shed, it can peel off her like an onion skin, and she can step out of that skin and be a different person.”

Living in Positron means alternating one month in the town, one month in the prison called Consilience. Stan is from a tough background and his brother Con is a criminal. This means Stan is far from naïve, but he is also desperate:

“They’re like the early pioneers, blazing a trail, clearing a way to the future: a future that will be more secure, more prosperous, and just all-round better because of them! Posterity will revere them. That’s the spiel. Stan has never heard so much bullshit in his life. On the other hand, he sort of wants to believe it.”

Charmaine and Stan sign away their lives to the project – there’s no leaving once you’re in – and settle into their new lives. The aesthetic is an idealised 1950s Doris Day film, with surveillance. Gradually they both, in very different ways, begin to understand the dark side of the Positron project, and of each other.

“He hadn’t recognised it when they’d been living together – he’d underestimated her shadow side, which was mistake number one, because everyone has a shadow side, even fluffpots like her.”

The plot that develops is darkly comic, and deeply sinister. Needless to say, the uses of technology in Positron are not ethical, and the question is, where do you draw the line? The answers to this question become more and more murky as the novel progresses.

Charmaine and Stan are not always sympathetic but they are believable, including why they would sign their lives away. The rise of the far right in today’s politics can seem bewildering at best and terrifying most of time, but Atwood has Stan address the reason people support their freewill being circumscribed, in no uncertain terms:

“Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven’t performed that well for him personally.”

There’s also a great deal about gender politics in The Heart Goes Last. I can’t say too much about it for fear of plot spoilers, but I greatly enjoyed this pithy observation by Charmaine when she’s taken out for dinner by a powerful man who wants to seduce her:

“She blots the corner of her eye, folding the trace of black mascara up in the serviette. Men don’t like to think about makeup, they like to think everything about you is genuine. Unless of course they want to think you’re a slut and everything about you is fake.”

The ending is perfect: a twist that shows in miniature the broader themes of the novel, ending with an unresolved question for a character and the reader. It doesn’t allow a comfortable feeling of being in a better, wiser position than the characters but instead asks: when faced with a moral dilemma, do you really know what you would do?

Secondly, The Penelopiad (2005), a novella (hooray!) in which Atwood retells the story of Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus (part of Canongate’s Myth Series). Penelope narrates the story from Hades. She was the faithful wife of Homer’s myth, but also had her eyes wide open with regard to her warrior husband:

“Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his – how can I put this? – his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.”

This captures much of the themes of The Penelopiad, that is, that Penelope’s feelings for her warrior husband are not straightforward, and also, that the story of events depends on who is doing the telling, what they leave in and what they miss out. The Odyssey is a cornerstone of Western civilisation, but it is not the only version. Penelope’s Odysseus is a wily cheat, far from heroic. Helen is a vain bitch:

“Of course, she was very beautiful. It was claimed she’d come out of an egg, being the daughter of Zeus who’d raped her mother in the form of a swan. She was quite stuck up about it, was Helen.”

When Odysseus is away fighting the Trojan War, Penelope runs his estates extremely well and keeps her suitors at bay. Her son Telemachus is a brat and Penelope feels more kinship with her 12 maids, many of whom she has known since they were babies. The maids form a Greek chorus throughout the story, speaking in verse between chapters. We know that Telemachus will kill them all on his father’s return, and Atwood is intrigued as to why these powerless (poor, female) people are treated so brutally:

“Let them dangle, let them strangle –

Blame it on the slaves!”

Penelope is shown as having to carefully navigate a position that sees her wealthy but powerless, having to pick her way through a minefield of social constraints that could see her branded a whore in her husband’s absence. Her faithfulness is not out of loyalty to Odysseus but self-preservation in a patriarchal society.

There are massive themes in this novella and they are as relevant as ever when the most powerful man in the world has a constant refrain of ‘fake news!’. By the end of The Penelopiad Penelope is shown to possibly not be a reliable narrator, but then, is anyone? Don’t we all have our own versions? Atwood reminds us that for each story told, it is worth considering what gain is to be made. And she does so with irreverent glee:

“Who is to say that the prayers have any effect? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t? I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands.”

Taking part in #MARM has made me check Atwood’s bibliography to see what I’ve missed: I’ve still got her three most recent short story collections, Hag-Seed and the MaddAddam trilogy to catch up on. I’m really grateful to #MARM for reminding me just how much I love her writing and giving me my Atwood impetus back again!

To end, when Margaret Atwood appeared on Desert Island Discs, she chose this song by a much-missed troubadour:

37 thoughts on ““Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” (Margaret Atwood)

  1. Brilliant post, Madame B! I haven’t read The Penelopiad, but have read The Heart Goes Last. And what I enjoyed the most was the thought of MA sitting there writing this story, having the time of her life, chuckling with glee at her characters and their “situations”. It sounds like there’s lots of good humour in The Penelopiad, too.
    It doesn’t surprise me in the least that MA chose that song – what a nice touch to include it in your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Naomi! I totally agree, I think you can tell Atwood had fun writing The Heart Goes Last. Her humour is so dry and incisive but never nasty, it’s such a joy! There’s a lot of humour in The Penelopiad too, it’s quite dark, which works well because we know the maids will be murdered.

      I’m always happy to include Leonard Cohen in a post 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I read The Penelopiad this year as an antidote to reading the Odyssey. I was so appalled by the ending, and then so thankful to MA for responding with such a humorous, clever take on it! I haven’t read The Heart Goes Last but will put it on my christmas list AND how could I have missed her on Desert Island Discs? Thank goodness for iplayer. A great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ooooh, lovely Madame B! Everything about Atwood is just – marvellous! I’ve read and loved the Penelopiad but not The Heart Goes Last Yet. And I have some non-fiction and short stories on the shelves and lots I want to revisit. I wonder if I could clone myself so I had one me who could just read and nothing else???

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I too have had a ‘no Atwood for me’ period as a consequence of Oryx and Crake. This was a dark and perilous time for me, as I had read her avidly before that. But then I read Hag Seed, which turned things around. I’ve reserved The Heart Goes Last as you’ve reminded me that I need to have more Atwood in my life again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It sounds like we’ve had very similar experiences. I definitely want to read Hag Seed now. I still feel apprehensive about the MaddAddam trilogy but I’m going to give it a try! I hope you enjoy The Heart Goes Last & Atwood stays in our lives for good 🙂


  5. What a fantastic pair of reads to choose for this month. And what an excellent reminder of how versatile and, perhaps even more impressively, wickedly funny, she is. To be able to locate humour in two dramatically different stories such as these: what skill. I’ve read The Penelopiad a couple of times, once because it was Atwood and once when I went to read The Odyssey and wanted more Penelope, but this month I’ve read the dramatic version for the first time and it’s just as enjoyable: all the same qualities. Isn’t The Heart Goes Last a pageturner? I think it was short stories before that and I had forgotten just how sweeping her tale-spinning can be. *listening to Leonard Cohen while typing*

    Liked by 1 person

    • She is so versatile isn’t she? It seems there’s nothing she can’t turn her hand to. Her humour is so clever too, it is much needed amongst the dark, heavy themes but it never lessens or belittles what she’s saying.

      I didn’t see the dramatic version when it was staged but I can imagine it would work really well.

      The Heart Goes Last is such a page turner! I read it so quickly, she just carries you along and it’s so well paced.

      Thanks for co-hosting #MARM, it’s great to see all the Margaret Atwood love out there 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve a nice clutch of yet to be read Atwoods lined up on my shelf for times of trouble, but your enthusiasm is catching. Just one won’t hurt, but which to go for….hm, decisions, decisions!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved The Heart Goes Last – thought it was gripping. I ended up reading the entire novel (I think it was published as stand alone ‘chapters’??) – don’t bother with the rest, it lacked the tension of Heart.
    Will have to get my hands on Penelopiad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d forgotten it was published as a serial! I can see it would work well in that format. I don’t have an e-reader so I read it in paper form. I found it gripping too, I whizzed through it.

      I hope you enjoy The Penelopiad. It’s a quick read but a powerful one.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Somehow missed this post till now. I love Margaret Atwood and read Life Before Man last week. Strangely both these books rather underwhelmed me. The writing as ever was superb, but neither story totally compelled me. The Heart Goes Last I loved the first part of, but then when the dolls and Elvises came along I got a bit cross with it. I usually hate anything about mythology so it’s testament to Atwood’s writing that I finished and quite liked The Penelopiad, I loved the way it was told from the woman’s perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I was reading it and got to the Elvises I thought, this is not going to be for everyone! She was clearly having fun & I enjoyed it, but I can definitely see that it was pushing things pretty far!

      The Penelopiad was a wonderful redress to those male-centric myths. It actually made me think about how patriarchal these texts that are the cornerstone of Western civilisation are. As you say, it was great to hear a woman’s voice as part of that narrative.


  9. Pingback: A few of my recent favourite reads… – LEAPING LIFE

  10. I agree, Atwood is such a safe pair of hands. I remember where I was and how old I was the first time I read her (15, Cat’s Eye, train station platform) as it made such an impression on me, and was so different to all the Catherine Cooksons I was spending my mid-teen years depressing myself with. A later adult re-read showed me all the bits the young me missed or couldn’t relate to at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Margaret Atwood Reading Month: Wrap-Up #MARM – Consumed by Ink

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.