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Don’t do what I would naturally do and write off Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed: “Please, no, not another author-reinterprets-author retread.” It’s true that with all the rewrites of Shakespeare and Austen routinely thrown at readers nowadays, it’s easy to be cynical. Atwood fans, however, will not be surprised to learn that to underestimate her would be a big mistake.
This retelling of The Tempest is one of four novels so far released as part of Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare initiative. It joins Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), with Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.
Set all that aside, though, as this is written with such gusto and mischief that it feels so much like something Atwood would have written anyway. The joy and hilarity of it just sing off the page. It’s a magical eulogy to Shakespeare, leading the reader through a fantastical reworking of the original but infusing it with ironic nods to contemporary culture, thrilling to anyone who knows The Tempest intimately, but equally compelling to anyone not overly familiar with the work. (This is, surely, the trick of these novels: to be able to walk that line between tribute and novelty.) There are shades of Orange Is the New Black, All About Eve, even JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (if it were set in southern Ontario). It’s riotous, insanely readable and just the best fun.
Atwood chooses a setup that could have been cheesy and turns it into something extraordinary: Felix is the wronged artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival. He has been cast aside thanks to the interventions of a Machiavellian rival just at the moment when he was about to unleash his greatest creation upon the world – an ambitious production of The Tempest. It was to have been a play that would lay to rest all the failures of his life and career. It was also an act of grieving to mark the death of his daughter Miranda. (See where this is going? I don’t think you even have to know The Tempest.) And so we have a play within a play within a novel.
Felix, evidently the Prospero of the piece, has to wait 12 years to get his revenge by creating a storm of his own. But when it comes it’s inventive and delightful. He gets a job as an acting tutor in a correctional facility. He persuades his students that they want to stage “his” Tempest, even reincorporating the actress he originally intended as Miranda. And he invites some high-ups in the government to see the progress he’s making with the inmates – and get extra financial support for the programme. It just so happens that one of these officials is his nemesis, Tony, who has gone on to greater things as the minister of heritage, having used the coveted artistic director role as a stepping stone. And, boy, is Tony about to find out what retribution means.
Felix is a fabulous character. Although he’s utterly idiotic and sometimes despicable, Atwood somehow has us in love with him and rooting for him all the way. He’s a superb caricature of these elitist liberals so reviled in some quarters at the moment. Felix on his original Tempest: “His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.”
Twelve years living a shack in the wilderness make him more bearable, but only just. He goes shopping for costumes for the inmates’ Tempest, as he needs to buy a bathing cap: “‘For your wife?’ says the woman, smiling. ‘Going on a cruise?’ Felix is tempted to tell her it’s for a convicted criminal inside a prison who’s playing the part of a magic flying blue alien, but he thinks better of it.”
The title comes from a list of “curse words” from The Tempest that Felix asks his students to compile: “Toads, beetles, bats light on you. Filth as thou art. Abhorr’ed slave. The red plague rid you. Hag-seed. All the infections that the sun sucks up…” All regular swearing is banned during rehearsals. They may only use the curse words Shakespeare has used in that play.
The novel builds to a fantastic climax of dark calamity, with a wonderful footnote that sees the prisoner-actors analyse what they would want to happen next in The Tempest. There is so much exuberance and heart and wonder in this novel that the only thing I want to happen next is for Atwood to rewrite the whole of Shakespeare. (No offence, Will.)
Hag-Seed, the Guardian Bookshop’s book of the month, is published by Hogarth (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £11.99
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Hag-Seed review – Margaret Atwood turns The Tempest into a perfect storm | Margaret Atwood