The good: Thought provoking, witty and original.
The not-so-good: I need more by Margaret Atwood – why was this the first book of hers I’ve ever read?
Why I chose it: On the Bailey’s Prize longlist.
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin)
Rating: 9 out of 10
I really only chose to read Hag-Seed because it was on the Baileys Prize longlist for this year and my local library had it in stock. I’ve never read Margaret Atwood before because I thought she was all about dystopian worlds. But every year, the Baileys Prize longlist takes me out of my reading comfort zone and shows me authors that I really, really like. Atwood can now be counted on that list. I enjoyed her writing so much that I don’t care if she writes the contents of her pantry in alphabetical order – I’ll read it.
Another thing that attracted me to this book was that it is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, where Shakespeare’s plays are reimagined in contemporary novel form. I enjoyed Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew) last year. I wasn’t overly familiar with the play (unless you count the movie 10 Things I Hate About You) but the story was delightful. I’m not too familiar with The Tempest (which Hag-Seed) is based on either, but the book contains a great explanation about the play at the back. I’d recommend that you read that first if you want to see the similarities. Avoid it if you don’t want to know anything about the story!
The extra-cool thing about Hag-Seed is that the story contains characters putting on The Tempest – in gaol. Felix is our Prospero, who was the dazzling, envelope pushing, avant-garde director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His Shakespearean plays have always lead to acclaim and controversy. But then his title and job is taken from him by his right hand man. Suddenly, Felix is nothing, living in a house/cave in the wilderness. For years he sits and broods over the loss of his wife and daughter Miranda. But then he decides to take a new job, teaching literacy in a prison under the nom de plume of Mr Duke. Every year, his students will put on a Shakespearean play for the others. Felix has avoided The Tempest, which was to be his most dramatic production yet (complete with cape made of stuffed toy animals). But with the ghost of his daughter whispering to him, it’s time. Then sweet revenge becomes ever closer as his enemies decide to descend on the prison for the play viewing before they remove funding forever. Will Felix and his cast succeed?
Hag-Seed is clever, witty and very well thought out. The title comes from the list of insults the students make from The Tempest (they are not allowed to swear during class unless they use a Shakespearean insult). Even though all the characters could be considered unlikable, you can’t help but cheer them on as they seek out revenge. Atwood also brings Shakespeare into the modern world with several very clever rap songs from the characters. (So much better than the way we studied Shakespeare!) I think the book would be great if you’re studying The Tempest and it would even attract the Shakespeare-phobic amongst us. I thought it was fun, creepy but also genius. Whether it’s enough to make the Baileys Prize shortlist I’m not sure, but I’m glad it made the longlist so I could be introduced to Margaret Atwood’s works.