21. A novel by a famous author, other than the one(s) they are best known for: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
List Progress: 25/30 (+2)
Despite having a resume with over sixty works on it, there are a few of author Margaret Atwood’s works that stand out as far, far more popular than others. You would have to be living under a rock to not at least have heard of The Handmaid’s Tale, and you would not have to be far into the literary world to be familiar with Alias Grace or Oryx and Crake. But I had never even heard of her 2016 novel Hag-Seed, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in a modern day prison.
While sitting down to write this review, I just learned that the novel is part of a commissioned multi-author series, The Hogarth Shakespeare project, with famous authors booked to retell Shakespeare plays, and that makes so much sense, for better and for worse. Hag-Seed as a commission makes a lot of sense because the biggest weaknesses with the novel come when it is trying to stay too close to The Tempest, which is far too specific of a story to work as a good template.
Hag-Seed follows a pretentious director named Felix who is ousted from the regional theater company he is Artistic Director of by the machinations of his Assistant Director and a board member looking to take over. Between the professional disgrace and the personal tragedy of his three-year-old daughter dying soon before, Felix becomes a recluse, living alone and plotting his revenge against the ones who betrayed him. That revenge is able to be orchestrated when he starts working with a program to create theater with inmates of a nearby prison, and in the program he can create his rendition of The Tempest which was denied him at the festival so many years ago.
So The Tempest exists as a play in this universe, and the characters spend a great deal of time discussing the plot, characters, themes, and how some of their actions run parallel to the play, making it a very meta affair all around. I am not a huge fan of The Tempest on its own, but Hag-Seed does make it quite engaging from a theatrical perspective, seeing the characters work through how best to present it. But The Tempest also has a large number of characters and subplots that make it more difficult to adapt/translate than a more clear-cut play like Macbeth or Hamlet. The novel has to introduce a parallel to the young lover Ferdinand incredibly late in the book because there is no other good place to put him, and there is only a Caliban in the most token sense. When the novel is being Felix’s story, it is quite good, but Felix is the only one who feels like a fully realized character, while his template, Prospero, is only one part of The Tempest.
There is a lot to like about Hag-Seed; the prose moves quickly and well, and the Ariel/wind-spirit role is fascinatingly set up as Felix’s deceased daughter, who is essentially his imaginary friend that he has constructed from being alone with his grief for so many years. But the other characters, especially the inmates, are largely ciphers and tools. You could make the argument that that is how The Tempest told from Proposero’s perspective would have to see other people, but that’s not a very engaging choice as an author and leaves the reader cold.
Whether you are familiar with The Tempest or not, you can have a lot of fun with this book, but the flaws become quite clear in the back half and it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. There is a reason this is not considered one of Atwood’s greats.
Would I Recommend It: A soft yes.