BOOK REVIEW: Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

A play within a play. Hamlet, right? Yep, but Hagseed too. Commissioned as part of a Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare series. Vintage got seven established authors to turn their hand at reimagining the bard’s work. And not in that story archetype way, where every RomCom seems to be a retelling of either Much ado or Taming of the Shrew. The connection is much more explicit and upfront and therefore, I can only imagine, potentially crushingly daunting. Here you go, they say, have a bit of cash and go toe-to-toe with the Big Man, the GOAT (greatest of all time – okay, it’s between him and Dan Brown, I’ll give you that). Most authors would probably give that money back and tell their agent not to tell anyone they chickened out, like Bruce Seldon looking for a way out against Mike Tyson. But not Margaret Atwood: there ain’t not keeping down the grande dame of dystopia sci-fi. She be like Rocky Balboa, Micky Ward and Jake LaMotta rolled into one, bouncing of the canvass with a shovel-hook to the body.

It’s not a knockout blow of a book for me, but like a liver shoot, it demonstrated great skill in its application and has some lasting effects.

The novel closely follows the structure of the play. Rather than being set on the prison of a magic island, it is set in an actual prison and the players are the convicts putting on the play as part of an educational program.

Felix, our protagonist, is a complex character who is not immediately likable. He appears pompous, arrogant and judgmental. Then again, he is a theatre lovie and the story, which is told from his point of view, unpacks those layers. Ultimately, he is a flawed but sympathetic character in a way that I found easy to empathize with but difficult to read for personal reasons. Felix is a prominent theatre director who is ousted from the Makeshiwig Theatre Festival and cast into the wilderness right as he is about to put on his version of The Tempest. He goes off grid and sometime later happens upon an opportunity to work at Burgess Correctional Facility delivering a Literacy through Theatre course. His unorthodox methods are a hit and years down the line this bring Felix the opportunity for revenge against those who banished him, and who have since climbed the greasy poll of public office.

As with the play, there are many different types of prison, physical and otherwise. Someone may be inmate and warden at the same time. Indeed, we may be a prisoner of our own mind, ensnared by the shackles of guilt. Grief can be a prison as much as walls and bars. Holding on to something, someone, who passed can leave us a drift on a tempest of grief, in which we punish ourselves as much as others.

This is Atwood’s Hagseed. A book of tragedy and hope, vengeance and love, pastiche and creative insight. It didn’t quite make the count of ten for me but it was up and ready to come out swinging by the eight-count. ‘Ol Will Shakespeare wins a 10/8 round, but I’d take an 8 out of ten against the GOAT anytime.

Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer born on November 18, 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. The internationally-known author has written award-winning poetry, short-stories and novels, including The Circle Game (1966), The Handmaid’s Tale(1985), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Tent (2006). Her works have been translated into an array of different languages and seen several screen adaptations, with both Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace becoming miniseries in 2017.

Atwood’s first published work was the pamphlet of poetry Double Persephone (1961), published via Hawkshead Press. More poetry followed during the decade as seen with the books Talismans for Children (1965) and The Animals in That Country (1968). She then published her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969, a metaphoric, witty work about the social status of a woman about to wed.

A tenacious spirit, Atwood would later describe taking Greyhound buses to read at gymnasiums and sell books. Atwood continued to publish poetry as well as the novels Surfacing (1973), Lady Oracle (1976) and Life Before Man (1980). Several more books followed, yet it was 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale that garnered Atwood a massive wave of acclaim and popularity. A prescient warning over what could be, the book chronicles a puritanical, theocratic dystopia in which a select group of fertile women—a condition which has become a rarity—are made to bear children for corporate male overlords.

Hag-seed was published by published by Hogarth.

You can purchase a copy of Hag-seed from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about Hogarth click here

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Review by Daniel Soule

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Check out Daniel Soule‘s previously published fiction below:

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