Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a must-read for Shakespeare fans, readers who enjoy retellings, and, frankly, for fiction lovers in general. Atwood writes beautifully, and I’ve realized this is the second year in a row I’ve read one of her books in January–I sense a tradition in the making.
About the book: Felix Phillips, a master of the arts, has been banished from his theater domain in Makeshiweg. His trusted co-worker has risen from beneath in order to gain a political advantage, and in lying about Felix’s desire for retirement, has also closed off any further career opportunities for the grieving man. Felix moves into a ramshackle house away from civilization, where he can pretend his dead daughter is lively and present once more. He accepts a teaching position at nearby Fletcher Prison and uses the literacy program there to teach convicts how to properly read and perform Shakespeare plays, all the while dreaming and planning his revenge on the man who disrupted his prestigious career.An opportunity presents itself for Felix to make his vengeful move from inside the prison, and Felix finally decides to direct the play that had been interrupted by his ousting–The Tempest.
“…didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?”
Like Shakespeare’s original play, Atwood’s Hag-Seed features a sort of play within a play, a multi-layered scheme for revenge with myriad parallels between the play itself, the convicts’ interpretation of the play, and the actual events of the novel that unfold with many similarities to the play’s plot. None of it, however, would work without the character who ties all of the threads together–the talented and devious Felix Phillips.
“Foolish lads, thinks Felix: never trust a professional ham.”
The characterization in this book is great. Some of the names are obviously similar to their Tempest counterparts, but others reveal comparable personalities through their mannerisms and attitudes, allowing the reader some easy connections, and some food for further thought even after the final page has been turned. Even before Felix shows his hand, however, he’s a uniquely addictive character. I couldn’t put this book down, and it wasn’t because of the scintillating plot. From the very beginning, Felix captures the reader’s attention with despair, cunning, sheer force, and sometimes even humor:
“His last stop is at a women’s swimwear boutique. ‘I’d like a bathing cap,’ he says to the elegant middle-aged woman who’s presiding. ‘Blue, if you have one.’ ‘For your wife?’ says the woman, smiling. ‘Going on a cruise?’ Felix is tempted to tell her it’s for a convicted criminal inside a prison who’s playing the part of a magic flying blue alien, but he thinks better of it.”
In addition to the great plot and the Tempest comparison intrigue, Atwood’s writing style is simply irresistible. She digs to the core of every emotion, bringing her world to life with well-crafted opinions unique to distinct personas, and juggles every detail with the practiced maneuvers of a true jester. There are very few women in this book, but the women that are present are arguably the most important characters (alongside Felix), and they are certainly represented well. The rather helpless Miranda of Shakespeare’s Tempest is a whirlwind force shared by two characters in Hag-Seed who make her one of the strongest persons of Atwood’s cast. The original Miranda is a target that needs protecting, but this new Miranda is all but invincible–seeing as one of the characters who represents her is already dead, and the other is a powerful actress who could probably kill any man who offends her with her ninja dance moves. Despite the male-heavy plot of the Tempest, the female voice is certainly not overlooked in Hag-Seed.
“There are so many rejections, so many disappointments, so many failures. You need a heart of iron, a skin of steel, the willpower of a tiger, and more of these as a woman.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. You don’t need to read The Tempest before this book; there is quite a bit of description about the nature of the characters and the important plot points woven into the book, and there are also a few pages at the end of the book that condense the story of the play into a bite-sized piece to make sense of anything you missed–or you can read it before diving into the rest of the story, now that you know it’s there. I think the story is immersive in its own right, but truly, in the end I think it’s much more rewarding to read following the original play. It’s fun to be able to compare your interpretations of the play and its pawns to the way it is presented in this book, which would be difficult to do if you’re only discovering the play for the first time within this transformed, modern version of it. Atwood notes differences in how the play has been performed, takes introspective looks at each of the main characters, and even discusses some of Shakespeare’s tactics at a logistic level, which are details that made me feel as though I were discussing my own thoughts on the play with someone else. I enjoyed that experience, and I don’t think I would’ve picked up on as many of the interesting opinions if I hadn’t already been familiar with the original Tempest.
- Shakespeare’s The Tempest, obviously, would make a good choice for Hag-Seed fans, or even potential Hag-Seed readers. Reading it before the play would be the best choice, perhaps, but I’m thinking I might read it again now that I’ve finished it. It’s a great story for anyone who’s interested in plays–especially magical ones.
- The Heart Goes Last is another favorite Margaret Atwood read of mine that takes place partially in a prison. This one’s a dystopian in which a whole community is formed by a group of people who are willing to jumpstart their economy on a small, private level by spending 6 months of every year in prison voluntarily. Of course, when this system is threatened with corruption, all hell breaks loose.
- Hag-Seed is a novel about revenge. If that’s your thing, you should also read Michael Punke’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen the movie and think the book isn’t worth your time, think again. The movie and the book are different stories, and no one has ever been so intent on revenge as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, novel version.
What’s next: I’ve just finished reading the final book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, The Raven King. I’m sad to be saying goodbye to this YA supernatural series, but it’s been a scintillating journey and I love where this one ended. Stay tuned to find out whether this last book about Blue and her raven boys is as irresistible as the first three!
Which great books are you reading this January?
The Literary Elephant