Book Review: Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood (2016)

November 2nd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Margaret Atwood makes Shakespeare better. Margaret Atwood makes everything better.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

He’s been chewing over his revenge for twelve years – it’s been in the background, a constant undercurrent like an ache. Though he’s been tracking Tony and Sal on the Net, they’ve always been out of his reach. But now they’ll be entering his space, his sphere. How to grasp them, how to enclose them, how to ambush them? Suddenly revenge is so close he can actually taste it. It tastes like steak, rare. Oh, to watch their two faces! Oh, to twist the wire! He wants to see pain. “We’re doing The Tempest,” he said.

Felix Phillips’s life – or at least his life thus far – is like something out of a Greek tragedy. As the Artistic Director (and sometimes-director/actor/star) of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, he pushes the envelope, rides his actors hard, and produces some pretty edgy fare – which often puts him in the crosshairs of the Board. Like many of the creative types he works with, Felix is more or less married to his job. That is, until he meets Nadia and is sucked into a late(r)-in-life romance. In the span of just four years, Felix got married; had a child; lost Nadia to a staph infection after childbirth; lost his daughter Miranda to meningitis; and lost his job at the Makeshiweg Festival.

Felix blames his assistant Tony Price for that last. According to Felix’s line of reasoning, Tony waited until Felix was vulnerable – distracted by grief – to swoop in and steal his job. A scheme made easier by Felix himself: too caught up in the magic of the theater, Felix was more than happy to hand over the more mundane tasks – boozing and schmoozing the donors and patrons, for example – to his assistant. Much like Prospero – the protagonist of The Tempest, which Felix was producing when he was unceremoniously canned – he paved the way for his own betrayal.

Devastated, in more ways than one – for the now-cancelled The Tempest was to be staged in his late daughter’s honor – Felix assumes an alias (F. Duke), moves to a hovel in the middle of nowhere, and becomes a recluse. A recluse visited by the apparition of his dead daughter, who mysteriously ages alongside Felix.

After nine years, he takes a part-time job teaching literature to medium-security inmates at the nearby Fletcher County Correctional Institute. They study Shakespeare, of course, writing, staging, performing, filming, editing, and screening one play a year: Julius Caesar, Richard III, Macbeth. His courses are fun, challenging, innovative, and wildly popular: “To his credit there’s always a waiting list.”

The guys love Felix: He encourages them to swear, but only using terms pulled from the current year’s text. He cultivates and celebrates their unique talents, from singing and acting to writing and costume design. The course is nothing if not dynamic: participants are allowed to rewrite the play to make it more contemporary (the only rule being that the plot must stay intact) and, at the end of the course, each team must give a presentation about their character’s life after the play. They compete and amass points, which translate into illicit cigarettes at the end of the semester. There’s even a cast party and a prison-wide screening. Felix’s students get to be stars, if only for a time. Felix still pushes the envelope, but in a much healthier way.

Now it’s Year Four, and Felix has just learned that Tony – excuse me, “Heritage Minister Anthony Price” – will be visiting the screening at the prison this year, along with Justice Minster Sal O’Nally, who Felix believes facilitated his downfall. What better play to form the backdrop to his revenge than The Tempest?

The island is many things, but among them is something he hasn’t mentioned: the island is a theatre. Prospero is a director. 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 if he fails …

I really had no idea what to expect of Hag-Seed, other than it’s Margaret Atwood and she can do no wrong. (Okay, almost: the casual animal abuse in Moral Disorder was THE WORST. I can’t even with Tig and Nell, okay.) If I had to summarize Hag-Seed short and sweet, it would be this: Margaret Atwood makes Shakespeare better. Margaret Atwood makes everything better.

Even though you know the plot, it’s hella trickier than it first appears. It’s not entirely clear whether Felix is a reliable narrator: he’s mad with grief and having visual and auditory hallucinations of his dead daughter Miranda. Who, serendipitously, is named after a main character in a play that’s proven central to his life. (But I digress.) But even before this, something seems not-quite-right. Felix is self-centered – narcissistic, even – and paranoid. Is Tony a back-stabbing opportunist, or is the plot to get Felix all in his head? Some of the theater folks seem nice enough; maybe Tony’s right, and the Board’s just had it with Felix’s flair for drama and danger. Paper-pushers and controversy don’t make for the coziest bedfellows.

The exact form that Felix’s revenge will take also remains a mystery for most of the book. The way he’s talking – raving, really – you picture something rather bloody and gory. Lure Tony and Sal to the inmate screening room and let them have at it? Blackmail? Assault? Murder? But what will become of Felix? Does he even care? And how will he manipulate the inmates into doing his bidding? After all, as he points out to his Miranda – the actress/former child gymnast, Anne-Marie Greenland, who was similarly cast in the original production – these are not violent criminals.

The parallels between Hag-Seed and The Tempest are both compelling and skillfully crafted as well. I guess this is where it helps to have already read The Tempest or, better yet, actually studied it in some depth. Atwood provides a handy little summary in the back matter, which I wish I knew beforehand (I consulted Wikipedia instead). The play in the book mirrors the play the players are playing, with Felix assuming the role of Prospero both in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute’s production of The Tempest – and in real life itself. Initially meant to give new life to Miranda, The Tempest does just that, chaining her spirit to that of her grieving father. She cannot rest until Felix has seen the play – and his revenge – through to the bitter end.

And what of Caliban? I feel like there’s a message buried somewhere in here about him – after all, the book bears his name – but I’m not entirely sure what it is: that Caliban was maligned and misunderstood? A product of his environment? A representation of the monstrous present in us all?

We’re presented with so many different interpretations of Hag-Seed – of all the MCs, really – that I don’t know which we’re meant to assume. All of them, at various points in time, perhaps? (Maybe the same goes for Felix and his compatriots?) Like I said, this is probably where advance knowledge would come in handy. Handy but not necessary: I loved the story just the same.

With a compelling plot; complex and nuanced characters; a really innovative inmate education program (seriously, someone should take Atwood’s curriculum and run with it!); and a peek inside a prison that humanizes those imprisoned out of sight and out of mind, Hag-Seed is a must read: for fans of Margaret Atwood, fans of Shakespeare, and fans of inspired storytelling.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: In just three years, Felix Phillips loses his wife Nadia (to a staph infection after childbirth) and his three-year-old daughter Miranda (meningitis). His assistant Tony Price uses his grief and distraction to stage a coup, stealing Felix’s position as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Felix moves to an abandoned, two-room shack in the middle of nowhere, and begins to experience visual and auditory hallucinations. He imagines that Miranda is with him, aging as she would have had she lived. After nine years of living in exile, he gets a part-time job teaching literature to medium-security inmates at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. During his downtime – April through December – Felix lapses into depression.

The story takes place during Felix’s fourth year at Fletcher. Seeing the opportunity for revenge – Tony, now the Heritage Minister, is set to visit during the screening of this year’s play – Felix decides to stage The Tempest – the very same play that was in production (and cancelled) when he was fired.

In his notes (to the actress he hired to play Miranda), we get a breakdown of some of the inmate’s physical appearances, behavioral traits, and criminal convictions:

ARIEL: 8Handz. Slight build. East Indian family background. About twenty-three. Very bright. Agile with a keyboard. Highly knowledgeable in tech matters. Conviction: Hacker, identity theft, impersonation. Forgery. Feels justified in his activities, as he believes he was playing a benevolent Robin Hood versus the evil King John capitalists of this world. Betrayed by an older colleague when he wouldn’t hack refugee charities. Played Rivers in Richard III.

CALIBAN: Leggs. About thirty. Mixed background, Irish and black. Red hair, freckles, heavy build, works out a lot. A vet, was in Afghanistan. Veterans Affairs failed to pay for PTSD treatment. Conviction: Break-and-enter, assault. Drugs- and booze-related. Was in addiction treatment but the program’s been cancelled. Played Brutus, Second Witch, Clarence. Excellent actor but touchy.

ALONSO, KING OF NAPLES: Krampus. Maybe forty-five. Mennonite background. Long horse-face. Member of a Mennonite ring ferrying drugs from Mexico through the US in farm machinery, under a cloak of piety. Depressive. Played Banquo in Macbeth, Brutus in JC.

SEBASTIAN, BROTHER TO ALONSO: Phil the Pill. Vietnamese refugee background; extended family sacrificed to get him through medical school. About forty. Feels he was wrongfully charged. Conviction: Manslaughter in connection with the deaths by overdose of three young college students for whom he repeatedly prescribed addictive painkillers. Says they begged him to help them. Easily manipulated. Played Buckingham in Richard III.

STEPHANO, A DRUNKEN BUTLER: Red Coyote. In his twenties. Native-Canadian background. Conviction: Bootlegging, drug-pushing. Doesn’t think he was doing wrong because the legal system is illegitimate anyway. Played Mark Antony in JC. Played First Witch in Macbeth.

TRINCULO, A JESTER: TimEEz. Chinese family background on one side. Round-faced, pale. Took his stage name from the Timmy’s doughnut chain because he claims to have nothing in the middle of his head. Acts stupider than he is. Advanced pickpocket skills. Conviction: Running a retail shoplifting ring. Claims he was pressured into it. Soothsayer in Julius Caesar, doorkeeper in Macbeth. Natural clown.

ANNOUNCER: We have always used an announcer, who provides capsule versions of each scene so the audience can follow the plot. Considering Shiv the Mex for this part. New Mexican family background. Conviction: Assault. Was acting as enforcer for a local gang. Outgoing personality, good voice. Played Lord Grey in Richard III.

BOATSWAIN: PPod. African Canadian. Musical talent, and yes, I know about the clichés. A dancer, not as good as he thinks, but good. Conviction: Drugs, extortion, assault, gang-related. Would have been a fine Caliban but is needed in other capacities.

Additionally, the two guards who always seem to be on duty during Felix’s shifts at the prison are Dylan and Madison:

One is brown, one light yellow. Dylan is a Sikh and wears a turban. His real name is Dhian, but he altered it because – he told Felix – it was less hassle.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really, but these two scenes are worth a mention.

“The animalskin cape [for Prospero in The Tempest] was a bridge too far. They saw the sketches. They say you’d have the animal rights activists down on us like a swarm of hornets.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Felix. “Those aren’t real animals, they’re children’s toys!”

“As you must realize,” said Tony with condescending patience, “that isn’t the point. They look like animals. And the cape isn’t the only objection. They really draw the line at Caliban as a paraplegic, they say it’s way beyond bad taste.”

The animals are rainbow-colored, fwiw, and not easily mistaken for the real thing. An obvious play by Tony the usurper.

“Burger and fries?”

“I think I’ll just have the walnut and cranberry salad and a cup of green tea,” she says. “I’ve sort of gone off meat.” Young girls are doing that now, thinks Felix: his own Miranda is the same. They eat quinoa, flax seeds, almond-milk shakes. Nuts. Berries. Zucchini pasta.

Probably for health reasons, but still: plant-based dietary references ftw.

 

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