Review: HAG-SEED by Margaret Atwood

New books have been released in the Hogarth Shakespeare series and I read Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, Hag-Seed. I read the Danish version which is called Hekseyngel, and I have to say that it was a lot of fun, despite some of the dark subject matters of the original play.

In the role of Prospero we have Felix Phillips, the art director at Makeshiweg Festival. He is also a widower and short before the beginning of the story he has lost his young daughter Miranda as well. He is betrayed by Tony, an assistant of his, who has told the leaderboard of the festival that he is not suited for the role as art director. As a result he loses his job, so he isolates himself in an old worn-down cabin with only a few possessions and the embodied memory of his daughter – no, really – and soon he gets a job as a literature tutor in a prison. There he teaches the students about Shakespeare, pulling on all his skills as a former theatre person.
After twelve years he gets the chance at avenging himself, so he decides it is time for him to finally realise the play he was working on when he lost his job; The Tempest by Shakespeare and incorporates his revenge plan into the show.

This book is such a trip. The first 20-30 pages are a bit slow, but they are setting the scene properly: We learn about Felix’s past and personality – a raving eccentric – and see how tormented by the death of his wife and daughter he really is. Especially Miranda’s death hit him hard because he felt like he would have noticed if he had not been so busy with his work as a director. She lives with him in the cabin and he imagines having conversations with her, seeing her play in the garden and all in all that they are having a normal life, despite her being dead.

After he has been betrayed by Tony the novel really starts to pick up the pace and I mean that in a positive way: He first seems to be stuck in his own bitterness and his desire for vengeance so the book is quite seeping with cynicism and dark moods, and he is convinced that the version of The Tempest he had planned for the festival would have been his magnum opus had it not been for him losing the job. Then as he gets a job at the prison, we are introduced to a colourful cast of characters in the form of the inmates and it seems like it makes Felix grow as a person even at his old age and even though he never lets his desire for revenge dwindle down.

What I really love about this book is that Atwood includes meta discussions about The Tempest which in some ways foreshadow the plot of the novel as well while also analysing the play. You see how Felix is very much Prospero which he kind of realises while also seeming completely oblivious to it in other senses. It helps the reader predict the plot in general terms even if they do not know the exact details of how the story will unfold. As someone who had never read The Tempest prior to diving into this novel, this really helped further my reading experience. The book does end with a short summary of the original play, and I am glad that it was at the end, because otherwise I would have spent too much time looking out for the play characters in the novel characters. I got to enjoy the book as a stand alone piece and then reflect on how the original play is represented in the book.

I also do not have a lot of experience with Atwood as a writer; I have read an excerpt of MaddAddam for a class at one point. I like her a lot as a person though, as I have been following her on Twitter for several years by now, and after reading this novel I am convinced I need to pick up more of her books.

As for you, dear reader: If you like re-tellings of Shakespeare, especially one with a lot of meta descriptions, this is a definite must-read. In fact, I would call it a must-read regardless if you had The Tempest or not; even if you are not a Shakespeare fan, because Atwood really makes it easy to get the reader engaged in her own story and the story which she has adapted.

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