God, Margaret Atwood can write, can’t she? The first book I read by her was The Handmaid’s Tale in the summer of 2016 and I absolutely loved it. Naturally, I spent my Christmas money on books, and one of those was Hag-Seed. It sounded very different to the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, instead set in modern Ontario, and is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hag-Seed is an absolute triumph and joy to read, dealing with themes both dark and whimsical.
The book follows theatre-director Felix in his fall from grace, usurped from his position by a man he considered a friend. Felix has a passion for unconventional interpretations of Shakespeare, and after the death of his wife and daughter theatre is his life. Upon his expulsion from the world he loves, he retreats into isolation and tiptoes towards insanity, before the stage pulls him back into reality. He becomes the director for a theatre-based prison rehabilitation program, and the prisoners and their productions ground him once more even as he begins to plot his revenge.
Felix draws parallels between his own betrayal and Prospero’s in The Tempest, and he conflates his daughter Miranda with the Miranda of the play, imagining who she would have been as the years pass. His tale is tragic, but much like Prospero he becomes fixated on vengeance, even as his perception of what is real becomes blurred.
The setting of the prison is genius, as The Tempest is all about the different prisons one can inhabit; whether they are in the mind or in the real. While the prisoners are physically incarcerated, Felix is trapped by the past. Hag-Seed examines each character in the play and in the book with frank honesty. In fact, I would say that Hag-Seed has some of the best and most realistic writing of characters that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Each character is realistic in a way I didn’t know was lacking in other books; the prisoners are judged as individuals and never simply condemned as criminals, and even the protagonists are flawed in a genuine way. I felt as if they were actual people rather than characters. The friendships Felix develops throughout the book are heartwarming and believable, providing much-needed levity at times when the book is at its darkest.
The book mirrors the play beautifully, as of course it was intended to do. The flow of the book is easily seen in the acts of the play and despite the very modern plot it still deals with the same themes of loss and despair, mischief and fun, and above all, freedom and imprisonment.
I cannot recommend this book more highly, whether you love or loathe Shakespeare, it’s a brilliant read that will gradually draw you in, leaving you basking in the power of the theatre.
P.S. Shout out to my boyfriend who spent twenty minutes taking photos of me cramped up in a bath holding this book doing his utmost to avoid including my arm/head/boob.