Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Over three decades ago, she predicted America’s current tailspin. Now, she’s reconfigured Shakespeare’s The Tempest, setting it inside a prison where magic and revenge frolic. Margaret Atwood is a mischievous goddess.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. New York: Random House Audio, 2016. CD.

Genre: fiction

Summary: Felix Phillips dazzles audiences every year at the Makeshawig Theater Festival, staging experimental and cutting-edge renditions of Shakespeare’s masterworks. But when a trusted colleague ousts him to claim the spotlight, Felix finds himself marooned in a country shack. He teaches chess to his daughter’s ghost and he plots myriad revenge schemes. When a nearby prison needs a new teacher for their inmate literacy program, Felix applies and soon discovers exactly how to exact retribution.

Critique: Margaret Atwood first dazzled me with A Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, that story anticipated the culture clash currently corroding the United States’ notions of democracy from the inside out. The book recently aired as a critically acclaimed series on Hulu. Viewers are warned not to binge watch it.

Hag-Seed is to Handmaid what Emma is Sense and Sensibility. It is lighter and brighter, but still promises Atwood’s signature wickedness and clever twists. The prologue opens in the future, inside the Fletcher Correctional Facility. Told in teleplay format, the text explains what is seen onscreen and heard off screen. The opening scene of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest unfolds, but with some modernized speeches added along with innovative costuming. Then, the power goes out. Voices from the audience express concern.

Outside the screening room, they hear shouting: Jail break!

Then gunfire. Then a voice inside the screening room commands the audience to keep still and quiet.

Electric tension whips the reader to attention in three short pages. Concluding with a cliffhanger, Atwood then backs up and shares how Felix Phillips made his way from lauded artistic director at a major theater festival to literacy instructor at a jail enacting an elaborate revenge plot on his old enemies.

As a villainous good-guy, Felix is truly sympathetic. Not only do we cheer on his plans to get revenge, but also, we adore his definitive skills as a teacher. Scenes in the classroom are among the novel’s most charming assets. For example, Felix allows inmates to swear all they want so long as they use Shakespearean curse-words. He truly inspires his students and transforms them into passionate actors.

Atwood unwinds the play within the novel,all the while echoing the two plot lines. The effect is dazzling, a bit like looking down on a stack of spiral galaxies. Corresponding swirls twist toward the same center. The more Felix’s students explore and understand the play, the more readers can anticipate what is going to happen next. And yet, the events are never predictable. Enough unexpected conflicts and curveballs enter the mix to keep us guessing and stressing. Will Felix’s plot succeed, or will the inmates rebel and exploit the performance to stage an actual jail break? Is the ghost of Felix’s daughter really there and really helping him or is it just a manifestation of his soured and maddened mind? And the ultimate question which the novel prods: is there really such a thing as happy endings?

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