Publication Date: October 11, 2016
Publisher: Crown Publishing
This is my second Hogarth Press novel and I am hooked. As I wrote in a previous review for Vinegar Girl, Hogarth Press was founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. In recent years Hogarth Press launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which much admired novelists are retelling the Bard’s stories in contemporary times.
Vinegar Girl is based on Taming of the Shrew. This novel is based on The Tempest, which unlike Taming of the Shrew I have never read. So I looked over SparkNotes, CliffNotes and Wikipedia to give myself an understanding of the play. However, even with some insight into the story line I must admit I do not know how or where to begin to review this book. Reading the Hag-Seed may be equivalent to being on an acid trip (think Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)
The protagonist is a father who is a famous avant-garde theater director who is betrayed by his right hand man (now this sounds Shakespearean). He is fired while directing the play The Tempest (keep somewhere in the back of your mind that before he is fired, he lost his beloved three year old daughter to meningitis and his wife to childbirth). He is in a bad place even before he is pushed out of his position of power in the world of the theater, and now he has lost everything.
Full of shame he goes into exile and moves himself into a two-room shack basically living as a hermit. Years go by and he applies for a job hoping human contact will help him keep his sanity. The reader is already questioning his mental health as he often thinks his dead daughter is still alive and growing up with him in this shack. He finds employment in a prison where he will direct plays with the inmates as the actors (I warned you this is a weird one). He produces a yearly Shakespearean play with them. Having convicts interpreting Shakespeare’s work into prison life is a surreal read; simply brilliant on the part of the author: Shakespeare in a hip-hop song. If you ponder about it long enough it actually makes sense.
The director learns his old treacherous colleagues will be visiting the prison to see one of his plays. For their visit he decides that his production will be The Tempest. He has a hidden motive (besides the obvious) for choosing this play. He labors with the inmates in a manner to seek revenge on those who betrayed him (shades of Julius Caesar). He knows he has the upper hand since he is using a pseudonym, so he will be able to catch them off guard. He also has help from his spirit daughter, who is now a teenager, as she also has a part in the plot.
So what we have here is a play within a play. I often found the need to re-read paragraphs for sometimes I became disoriented reading in this type of style. I strongly feel my confusion is not due to the writing, but because I am not overly familiar with the play. I also believe part of my confusion is just what the author is hoping for. She skillfully plays with her readers’ minds, keeping them guessing what is real and what isn’t. Atwood is one of the most distinguished writers of our time. I did expect this novel to be literature at its best, which it is. What threw me for a loop is that I did not expect to be reading a sci-fi-dramedy. Everything about this novel feels like it is written tongue in cheek, leaving the reader scratching their head, smiling and thinking “damn she is good.” I will now absolutely read The Tempest, just so I can re-read Hag-Seed and be able to say “ah, that’s what that line meant.” This gem of a book is worth a second read, but isn’t all of Shakespeare?