Hag-Seed (Atwood)

Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

This is Margaret Atwood's re-telling of The Tempest, set in a Canadian prison. It's part of a series of commissioned re-tellings of Shakespeare, by a variety of authors.

 

Damn, that woman is clever. I don't go to her if I'm looking for emotional comfort, for sure, but I love watching her the way I love watching a trapeze artist or an Olympic snowboarder: sheer appreciation of someone exercising amazing skills I'll never possess. This one is full of happy recollections for an English lit major; don't know how well it would play if you were completely unfamiliar with the Tempest, though there is a helpful summary at the back.

 

There's nothing terribly realistic about the plot of the novel (it depends on a highly unlikely temporary technological takeover of the prison), but individual moments and references provoke chuckles of recognition. Take the name of the protagonist, for instance - Felix Phillips. Felix for Prospero, of course, but the "Phillips" part is obviously for Robin Phillips, who was the long-time and famously unconventional artistic director of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival. Actually, I'm kind of disappointed that Atwood 'fessed up to that one in her afterword, and didn't let the rest of us go on feeling clever for having noticed it.

 

Likewise, the characters of the various inmates and the few outsiders are slenderly built (though I didn't feel they were stereotypes). But there is just enough depth there - Felix is dealing with, or rather not dealing with, the death of his real-life daughter, Miranda, to whose imagined image he talks while he lives out a wretchedly reclusive life. (As in the play, things improve at the end.)

 

I'm pretty sure that the critical notion that The Tempest is all about various types of prisons is not original to Atwood (though it's been so long I wouldn't even know where to start digging it out). But the way she has worked it through is entirely her, and entirely delightful.

 

Delightful. Yes, that's exactly the word. Do read it!