Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
I’ve been falling behind on posting book reviews lately, but the books themselves are all stacked up waiting for me to blog about them. Problem is, the more I read, the less I remember about each individual book I read last year to be able to review it… But here I go anyway!
My mom gave me Atwood’s book Hag-Seed a year or so ago, and although I was very much looking forward to reading it, it took me a while to get around to it. Around the time I had finally picked it off the shelf and placed it by my bed to read, I started seeing posts on Facebook about how Atwood was defending someone who’d been accused of sexual assault, and rules-lawyering about reasonable doubt and giving men a chance. I was so irritated and disappointed, as it seemed at that time that every time I turned around, another woman whom I had previously thought reasonable was siding against victims and with predators. So I ignored the book for a few more weeks, and once I did start to read it, I was in a frame of mind to be extra critical of it.
And I did indeed find much to criticise. Or at least much to be disappointed in. The only three female characters were 1) a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, 2) a trying-too-hard femme d’un certain âge scorned by the protagonist, and 3) the out-of-work actress he originally wanted as his Miranda twelve years earlier who is willing, available, flexible, and eager to rush in to fill the role. The protagonist himself, Felix, is a narcissistic, vengeful man who feels that his artistic brilliance justified anything he chooses to do. The prison, prison guards, and inmates are portrayed so unrealistically that I have to assume that even people who have never been to or worked in a jail must be unconvinced.
Now maybe, I thought while reading the book, perhaps this was all a brilliant work of irony or satire or theatrics. Maybe the theatrical nature of this—a book which creates a play within a play based on a play outside the book—is actually a fourth play—the book itself—with liberties taken for the sake of the staging and the plot.
But I found the protagonist tiresome and whiny, the two live female characters superficial and unrealistic, and the portrayal of jail guards and inmates condescending.
What I did enjoy was the dive into The Tempest itself, and the different interpretations of the play and its various parts. It’s not a play I’ve ever read or seen; having only picked up some of its pieces bit by bit through references elsewhere, it was interesting and intriguing to have this be my first real introduction to it, and I wonder how much more I might have appreciated this book if I had been familiar with The Tempest beforehand.
And the other thing, a little thing but something that gave me great pleasure, was that when Felix had the inmates working on the play, all regular curse words were forbidden. Instead, they could only use the curse words from the play itself. This playfulness and the way it is taken to heart by the inmate-actors was quite lovely.
After reading this book, I discovered that it is part of the Hogarth Project, which has contemporary authors re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays. That did put the book in a new light for me, seeing that Atwood was writing within certain constraints. It makes me more appreciate that Felix/Prospero is the protagonist not because Atwood decided to write about a self-involved man with little regard for others, but because he is, simply, the obvious protagonist. It also put the inmates in a different position: Atwood is not forcing them awkwardly into the various roles, but showing how the play’s characters are relevant to and reflected in people in all times. So I felt a bit more generous toward both the author and the book after discovering this context.
That said, I am sorely disappointed in the lack of feminism, woman-centredness, or politics beyond the petty (etc.) in this book. My expectations of Atwood were formed by Surfacing and The Edible Woman back when I just hitting puberty. Hag-Seed just doesn’t come close to that style, subtlety, or layering.
I have no interest in re-reading this book, and it will go into my giveaway pile.
Disclaimer: this review is thinner than it could have been, as I read the book quite a while ago…