Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Shakespeare’s last masterpiece, adapted for a modern novelization by a contemporary literary master? The temptation is surely too good to pass up, which is why I jumped at the chance to read this one. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

Felix is the innovative, pioneering Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre, bringing his unique, outlandish interpretations to life on the stage. For his pièce de résistance, he has decided on The Tempest.  That is until a sudden betrayal leaves him stripped of his prestigious position, and hiding away somewhere remote with only the ghost of his daughter, Miranda, to keep him company. However, soon, opportunity comes knocking in the form of an opening for an English teacher at a nearby correctional facility. It is not Felix’s usual scene, but needs must, and so he puts his hand up for the position. Opportunity brings more opportunity: his new position suddenly leaves him in the very delicious position of exacting revenge on those who have wronged him.

Atwood’s sharp-tongued humour is at play throughout the novel. There were moments that made me chuckle, and there are, of course,  all the tongue-in-cheek references that are bound to pop up with such modernizations. Contrasted with this is the lyrical melancholy that Felix lives in when he’s at home, always under the cloud of grief for his young Miranda. His grief manifests in a dream- like hallucination; Miranda is always there to greet him after work, engage in imaginary games of chess, and worry after his health. Felix’s delusional grief is palpable and heartbreaking.

However, this modernization fails to add anything new to the classic. If you’re already familiar with The Tempest, then this take is going to feel very predictable. There is no denying Atwood is a master of her craft, but unfortunately she brings nothing new to the tale. Furthermore, having Felix put on The Tempest, requires an enormous suspension of belief from the reader to accept that he doesn’t see the gigantic parallels between the events in the play and his life.

I did find Felix’s use of Shakespeare in the penitentiary classroom interesting. Especially as Atwood notes in her “Acknowledgments” that this is inspired by the many books that recount literature and drama being taught within prisons. Felix’s students have varied interpretations to the text, ranging from a casual remark, to humorous insights, and poignant observations.

Unfortunately, it is not enough to erase the overall sense of predictability that hangs over this novel. Once Atwood had introduced all the players, I was expecting a twist of some sort, or an added layer of insight into this story. There were no such developments.  I appreciated Felix’s role as Prospero, both on and off the stage, as he wields his particular brand of magic: that of acting and imagination. It is disappointing, however, that Atwood’s own magic fails to salvage this sinking storyline for those already familiar with it.

This title is recommended to readers who are new to The Tempest, and enjoy modernizations of the classics.

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Faustina Paustin Faustina was reading when she popped out of the womb. Probably. Reading is her life, and she’ll read pretty much anything. After reading her way through primary, high school, and university, and finding she hasn’t gotten sick of it, she’s still reading now. Her favourite genres are YA, realist fiction, and magical realist fiction, with a strong focus on diversity. She believes that houses should have in-built bookshelves in all the rooms, and that ebooks and printed books can get along.

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