Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.
I have to admit to never having read a Margaret Atwood novel and the dystopian setting initially surprised me, it is familiar only in that it reeked of stereotypes that populate the genre. However, my first impression could not have been more wrong. Margaret Atwood knows how to create an original, if strange, world and I enjoyed the novel only so far as to chuckle at the absurdity of some of the plot lines.
The interesting thing about Charmaine is that while she can be easily described as naïve, and I will in fact use that word, when it comes to aspects of her affair and the relationship with her husband she harbours no delusions. In the beginning I was unimpressed by Charmaine’s dependence on her husband and the casual way she started an affair, and as the novel progressed this naivety and delicacy is peeled back to reveal a desire to stay alive, but not much more. There’s a restless unrestrained violence within Stan. His temper is easily lit and it’s a stark contrast from Charmaine’s positive sweet words. Neither of them were particularly interesting characters, in fact their flaws outweighed everything but their odd dedication to each other.
This book relies heavily on sex as a means of manipulation, humiliation and motive. Charmaine’s hidden desires lead her to having an affair and Stan’s obsession and lack of sexual fulfillment drive them to a dangerous situation. This human weakness drives the majority of the characters in this novel.
I was forced to always question and probe at the surface of the motivations of each character. The foreshadowing, which is delicately done, reveals nothing about plotlines until it’s too late. In fact, each plot reveal was executed with a casual easy progression that allows for the befuddlement of the reader. However, this was more due to the absolute absurdity of the novel than anything really shocking. The novel is a roller coaster ride through an unbelievable and frankly insane world. It is possibly one of the strangest novels I have ever read. And while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I was taken off guard a lot and this kept me reading until the last page.