REVIEWED: Hag-Seed

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Hag-Seed by Margaret Attwood (Novel, 2016).

Bestselling and much honored, multiple-award-winning Canadian author Margaret Attwood’s latest is (typically for her) something a bit off the beaten-path. Hag-Seed is both a simultaneous tribute to and a re-imagining of one of Will Shakespeare’s more funky works–The Tempest. Magic, revenge, love and redemption–all the aspects of the play are here. The book (available in all the usual formats) also features a healthy dose of social/political commentary, glimpses of the various personalities of a group of (mostly nonviolent) prison inmates, some humor and (this being Attwood we’re dealing with) a hint of the fantastical (in the form of a ghostly presence, who may be nothing more than a manifestation of the lead character’s intense grief and loneliness–or maybe, just MAYBE might be something more).

Oh, and by the way, it’s actually good fun and even manages a happy ending (for those who most deserve it) and richly deserved trouble for several deserving individuals herein.

Felix, the artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival, likes to push the envelope (as the saying goes) with unusual stagings of famous plays. He’s plotting an especially wild version of The Tempest, in large part to soothe his pain after losing his wife and then (in particular) his 3-year-old daughter (the latter named Miranda, just like the girl in the play). But these plans are aborted, when his scheming assistant and a politically ambitious backer conspire to get him fired.

Heartbroken and bitter, Felix drops out of sight–exiling himself to a tiny shack in a rural area. In his agony, he imagines his Miranda is living (and growing up, eventually becoming a delightful teenager) with him. Years pass, with Felix telling himself that Miranda isn’t real, even as having her around grows ever more important to him. And as he manages to keep a vengeful eye (mostly via the internet) on the advancing careers of his betraying enemies.

Somehow, he must get back at them–but how?

Eventually, he gets bored and wrangles a part-time job under an assumed name, taking over a literacy program for medium-security prisoners in a nearby prison. Given his experience (and with a helpful and admiring administrator’s assistance), he transforms the program into the Fletcher Correctional Players, which puts on one Shakespeare play per year. He teaches inmates all about theater arts: They play roles, make costumes and sets, write essays about their experiences and the characters (fulfilling the literacy angle) and even videotape their work, to show to the rest of the inmate population and some amused (but soon impressed and supportive) guards.

After more years, he learns his foes (who in his mind forced him into an exile comparable to Prospero in the play) plan to cut funding for this unusual experiment (the two have done well in Canadian politics, including one who is the new Justice Minister). But as a matter of form (read: pretended fairness), they’ve agreed to attend one performance before scraping the operation (and all without knowing that program director “Mr. Duke” is in fact Felix).

Seeking revenge and/or justice, Felix determines to now stage his own version of The Tempest. Preparations (starting with convincing skeptical inmates that this play isn’t too ‘gay’ for them) take up a good part of the book. It’s really interesting how Felix gets them interested and finally enthused with the project. He also must recruit a female actor to play Miranda. And most of all, having won the loyalty of all concerned, he gets them to plot a live-action/psychologically scary variation of the play that he (and they) will spring on the unsuspecting political hacks while everyone else in the prison watches the videotaped “real” version. It’s all unlikely, but ultimately fascinating and all turns out for the best in the end (complete with Felix–like his alter-ego Prospero–at once victorious, yet generous to those he’s overcome). The program saved, several possibly true loves found (including that administrator who has had the hots for Felix all along, and he finally realizes he feels the same) and his personal honor restored, the book ends on a satisfying note with Felix having freed himself and the possibly real spirit of his daughter from the bondage of his obsessive bitterness.

By the way, “hag-seed” is one of the insults featured in the play and an amusing yet gently insightful part of the book involves how Felix forbids his players from using coarse modern curses while working on the play–they have to use Shakespeare’s poetic put-downs instead, or be banned from the program.

 

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