I decided to read this book, which is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, after reading Teresa’s post about it over on Shelf Love, and I’m really glad I did. As Teresa says, this book is fun—lots of fun. Before I picked this up, the last five books I read were either 1) enjoyable and readable nonfiction or 2) good but somewhat challenging or offputting fiction, and I was ready for a book like this: a novel that is smart and well-written but also pretty straightforward. Hag-Seed was a pleasure to read, a book that made me look forward to my subway commute every morning and evening because it meant a chance to read a bit more of it.

From early in the book, it’s clear that Felix Phillips is going to be our Prospero-figure, associated as he is with “illusion” and “pretense” and “fakery”, and with a rivalry that has resulted in a “vengefulness” that’s been building for the past twelve years (9-10). As Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival, doing over-the-top Shakespeare adaptations, Felix has been a “cloud-riding enchanter” (12). But he’s familiar with loss, too: his wife, we learn, died in childbirth, and his young daughter (named Miranda, naturally) died from meningitis at the age of three. Felix fears his absorption in his work may have contributed to Miranda’s death, but he’s also convinced it’s what will save him: he throws himself into a production of The Tempest in which he will play Prospero. But that production is never to be: Felix’s assistant, Tony, delivers the news that the festival’s board has decided to cut Felix’s contract short; Tony himself will be the interim artistic director. This blow leads Felix to a self-imposed exile in a shack on the outskirts of town, his version of Prospero’s island, with the imagined ghost of his dead daughter for company.

Eventually, though, he realizes he needs to do something, and so applies to teach a “Literacy through Literature” program at the local prison. He applies under a false name, but the woman who interviews him recognizes him: he convinces her that his true identity needs to be their secret. He gets the job, and decides to make his version of the program focused on Shakespeare: the inmates will read the plays, write about them, and put on productions of them. After three successful years of this, Felix learns that Tony, now a government minister, will be in the audience of the next production: he decides that it has to be The Tempest, and of course, because this is a retelling of The Tempest, he decides he wants to use the occasion of the production to get his revenge on Tony and on others who wronged him. It’s a pleasure to watch the various strands of the story unfold—we get classroom scenes where Felix works with his students to tease out the play’s characters and their motivations; we get rehearsal scenes where we get to see the production taking shape; we get scenes of Felix shopping for props and costumes, and scenes of Felix planning his revenge, all told in a way I found to be lively and fluid and immensely readable.

4 Responses to “Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Hogarth (Penguin Random House), 2016”

  1. Stefanie Says:

    I have this book sitting on the table beside me and I have not started reading it yet. I keep looking at it and saying, soon, but soon has yet to arrive. Maybe I should just return all my other books to the library and forget about them and just read this one :)

  2. Heather Says:

    Stefanie, I had this book checked out from the library for quite a while before I actually got to it, so I relate – my library system has enough copies of it that there were no holds on it, so I kept being able to renew, and it therefore kept getting bumped down my list. I look forward to hearing what you think of it when you get to it, anyhow :)

  3. Jenny @ Reading the End Says:

    Oh, well, this does sound fun. The Tempest is one of my most favorite Shakespeare plays, definitely in my top five? So I’m mostly in the tank for any Tempest-inspired stories, particularly since it lends itself so well to all sorts of different adaptations and interpretations.

  4. Heather Says:

    Jenny, yes, lots of fun! Do you have other Tempest-inspired stories you’ve read and liked? I feel like I’d probably enjoy others too.

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