Review: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Also by this author: The Heart Goes Last
Published by Hogarth on October 11th 2016
When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution.
Eventually he takes a job teaching Literacy Through Theatre to the prisoners at the nearby Burgess Correctional Institution, and is making a modest success of it when an auspicious star places his enemies within his reach. With the help of their own interpretations, digital effects, and the talents of a professional actress and choreographer, the Burgess Correctional Players prepare to video their Tempest. Not surprisingly, they view Caliban as the character with whom they have the most in common. However, Felix has another twist in mind, and his enemies are about to find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever. But how will Felix deal with his invisible Miranda’s decision to take a part in the play?
I have to confess when I first saw this book, I did not realize it was a retelling of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. There are some authors that have impressed me enough with my previous reads I honestly don’t feel the need to read the synopsis closely before diving in when I get my hands on it. This was one of those books. I absolutely love The Heart Goes Last, and regardless of what Atwood’s next book was about, I knew I would have to read it. Enter Hag-Seed.
I am not sure I was the ideal reader for this particular book. I am woefully unfamiliar with The Tempest, which means that there are likely many reference and parallels, unique twists, etc, that I am not in a position to recognize or appreciate. I will say that the way Hag-Seed is told, I did become more familiar with The Tempest as I read. At the end of the book, there is a section that summarizes The Tempest for the reader. I wish that had been in the beginning as I felt like it may have helped me understand the retelling aspect a bit more if I had read that section prior to reading Atwood’s book.
Felix works for a prestigious theater and is known for his surprising innovation and originality. He is successful but has known real suffering. He lost his wife when she died in childbirth. Then his precious daughter, Miranda died at just three years of age. Still reeling from his loss, he suffers a huge blow when there is a conspiracy to oust him from his position, replacing him with his nemesis, Tony.
Getting the story told from Felix’s perspective is definitely interesting as I quickly began to question his reliability as a narrator. He is obviously a bit troubled and at times seems just outright paranoid. His deceased daughter Miranda continues to be at his side. Only he can see or hear her, but she ages and progresses through the years. How much of what Felix tells us, particularly when it comes to his own genius and the evil motivations and actions of his enemies, can we trust? Is he delusional? Is Miranda really a ghost, or is she a figment of his imagination? I honestly found it hard to be sure of any of these questions at times, which made the story more intriguing.
Felix is almost obsessed with The Tempest, which was to be his next proud moment in theater before he was replaced. And his life and this story parallel the Shakespeare play. He eventually gets a second chance when the opportunity to instruct a theater class in a local prison comes his way. His tactics and interactions with the prisoners are great. And, of course since Felix is narrating, his program is genius and a huge a successful. It is really good seeing him appreciate and praise the prisoners, finding their talents and getting their interpretations of Shakespeare (many characters they can easily relate to).
After several years of working this program, the story, as well as Felix’s madness, reaches a new level when the opportunity for revenge on the people who ousted him from the theater arises. At this point, Felix decides it is time to revive his plans to produce The Tempest, this time with his actors from the Correctional Facility.
Hag-Seed is a unique and unpredictable story. It has much going for it. However, it was a very different reading experience for me from The Heart Goes Last. I usually hate to pick favorites, but for me, this book did not engage or retain my interest on nearly the same level as The Heart Goes Last. I didn’t find as many under riding themes that related to our society as I did with The Heart Goes Last. That does not mean they are not there, I could have missed them. And even if they are not, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just one thing I loved about the last book I read by her, that was absent in this one. I also can’t say I found this one as humorous. But, apples to oranges, I really think the stories are quite different. What didn’t work as well for me in Hag-Seed may actually make it a stronger book for other readers, because whether I connected with it as fully or not, I can not deny that Atwood crafted another intelligent novel.
Review originally posted on The Speculative Herald.