I don’t often review books – reviews aren’t the main purpose of this blog after all – but when I had the opportunity to explore an advanced reading copy of Margaret Atwood’s new book Hag-Seed, I knew that I had to write one.
You don’t ignore Margaret Atwood.
Atwood and I have a long, sordid history. Her books have sat on my mother’s shelves for as long as I can remember, and I adore her poetry. Despite my appreciation for her works, some of them are painful to read. The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, causes a physical hurt when I flip through it. Oryx and Crake has a similar effect. With all of that in mind, I was a bit leery approaching Hag-Seed; I didn’t know whether I was in for an evening of pleasure or pain.
Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Series and reinterprets Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Atwood’s version of the story maintains the themes of vengeance, family, and magic while setting the story in a modern locale. When Felix, Hag-Seed’s version of Shakespeare’s Prospero is betrayed by a dear friend, he loses his position as the artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. He retreats from society and lives in a hovel haunted by the spirit of his dead daughter, Miranda. When Felix has the opportunity to teach theatre at a local prison, he uses it as a chance to take his revenge on the people who led to his downfall. (Just as my discussion yesterday mentioned that prisons have libraries, prison drama projects like Shakespeare Behind Bars also exist in the real world.)
In a recent article, Atwood describes how she struggled writing this book. Writers have interpreted The Tempest in dozens of different ways, and Atwood battled with the fear that she would not be able to add anything new to these many iterations. But finally she had the following breakthrough.
“Calm, calm, I told myself. I read the play again, this time backwards. The last three words Prospero says are “Set me free.” But free from what? In what has he been imprisoned?”
And with questions of freedom and imprisonment in mind, Atwood found her theme.
I think the book is lovely, and my fears of it causing me too much angst were entirely unfounded. Though Atwood occasionally is a bit academic about the concepts found in The Tempest, the book is filled with humor and characters that seem to live even outside of the main narrative. She captures the actors within the prison particularly well, and some of their squabbles seem not unlike the disagreements found in other small theatre companies. The beginning of the novel moves a bit more slowly than I would like, but the pace picks up during the second half of the book. The dialogue is magnificent.
I would recommend that anyone interested by the the plot’s conceit read the book, but it is definitely helpful for readers to be at least vaguely familiar with the original Tempest. (I suspect that a quick skim of the wikipedia article on it would be good enough.) Hag-Seed will be available for purchase on Oct. 6 in the UK and on Oct. 11 in the US. If you have read the book or plan on reading it in the future, I’d love to hear what you thought of it. Atwood can be a divisive writer, and it is always enlightening to discover why people react to her various works the way they do.
And my ending is despair/Unless I be relieved by prayer/Which pierces so that it assaults/Mercy itself, and frees all faults/As you from crimes would pardoned be/Let your indulgence set me free.
-Prospero, The Tempest, Lines 2358-2363