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Back in the arms of Atwood with Hag-Seed

Twenty years ago, I considered Margaret Atwood to be a demigod; I reverentially devoured all her books.  If there had been an Atwood holy site, I’d have made the pilgrimage (as I’ve done with Prince Edward Island and Haworth).  Alias Grace, Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride, The Handmaid’s Tale are still up there as some of my all time favourite books.  Then came Oryx and Crake, which Atwood assured us was not science fiction, but rather ‘speculative fiction’.  All the same, I was left unmoved by it.  In fact, I felt decidedly let down by it. So I consciously (and somewhat painfully) turned away from any Atwood books that followed.

For me, Hag-Seed was like coming home. From the opening paragraph I knew I was back in the literary arms of the Atwood I had once known and loved: ‘Felix brushes his teeth.  Then he brushes his other teeth, the false ones, and slides them into his mouth. Despite the layer of pink adhesive he’s applied they don’t fit very well’.  I loved this book because of the wonderful writing and clever storytelling, but also because it showed me that Atwood and I do have a future together after all.

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Hag-seed is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It takes the play’s central themes (revenge, loss, illusion) and its characters (Prospero, Miranda, Caliban, Ariel) and braids them seamlessly into a very modern context. Rather than being set on an island, the narrative plays out mostly in a Canadian prison.

We’re immediately introduced to Felix – an artistic director of a local drama festival who is unceremoniously stripped of his position and betrayed by his right-hand man Tony.  Felix then dedicates his life to getting even with him. After years of stalking Tony online and plotting fanciful ways of exacting revenge (‘He’d read a murder mystery in which the victim had died from eating daffodil bulbs. They’d been disguised in an onion soup, as he recalled’), Felix takes up a position as a teacher in a Literacy Through Literature program at the nearby Fletcher County Correctional Institute.  Eventually, this position provides him with the opportunity he’d been looking for, by staging The Tempest with the inmates from the gaol.

This book presents a play, within a play, within a novel. Felix (as our Prospero) is to some degree aware of this. As he says, ‘he’s putting on a play, within which there’s another play.  If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire’. But Felix doesn’t recognise that his whole life is an echo of The Tempest. Confused?

Hag-seed sort of reminded me of the film Inception: at times I actually didn’t know what layer or metaphor I was situated in. However, strangely, it all makes sense – a testament to Atwood’s story-telling genius. And I should add: you don’t need to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy this book.  I’ve never seen or read the play, so I unashamedly relied on wiki to help me out.  But I don’t think this is even necessary.

Hag-seed isn’t flawless and it won’t be for everyone.  (See Danielle @ Books, Vertigo and Tea for a less than enthusiastic review).  But for me, it felt good to once again be embraced by Atwood’s seriously great writing (‘Tony and Sal draw closer, attending banquets, appearing at galas, dispensing interviews to the press like thrown roses, leaving a spoor of photo ops wherever they go’) and wicked storytelling.  I feel like we’ve moved on from our literary lovers’ tiff.  I’m happy again to be wooed by Atwood’s words. It’s taken some time, some distance and some soul-searching, but I can now shyly and gingerly utter those three little words again: I love Atwood.

 

*I received a copy of Hag-Seed from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

6 Comments

  1. Ha! I feel exactly the same way you do and I saw this book the other day advertised and I was feeling utterly skeptical. But maybe I should take a leap of faith on your review!

    • Yeh, you should. She’s not totally back to former form but it’s a definite step in the right direction.

  2. Like you, I’ve held Ms Atwood in high esteem since I read The Edible Woman. I liked Oryx and Crake, but the following two in the series really disappointed me. I’m glad to hear Hag Seed is a return to form. Her most recent short story collection Stone Mattress was good, it had some familiar characters in it. I have avoided The Heart Goes Last because of its provenance (based on an online serial called Positron, it felt like she was low on ideas, especially after Year of the Flood and MaddAddam), but I might borrow Hag Seed from the library. I enjoyed Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice in the same series. I want to read Jeanette Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale as well.

    There are too many books!

    • Atwood is obviously very proud of the MaddAddam series as it features very prominently on her website; I feel a bit better knowing that I’m not the only one a bit disappointed by these books. I’m quite keen to read Jeanette Winterston’s retelling as well. Let’s see who get there first!

  3. I had originally tried to comment several days ago, but it doesn’t seem to have taken. And then well, I fell ill and fell behind.

    I wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed this review! Even though I wasn’t able to connect with Atwood’s work, it is great to read the thoughts of someone who can. She definitely writes well and holds my respect, unfortunately it just is not meant to be with me.

    Thank you also for sharing my review.

    • I’m sorry you haven’t been well; hopefully you’re feeling better now. Glad you enjoyed the review – I enjoyed your’s equally!

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