Review: Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

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I’ve just finished Hagseed and my feelings are mixed to say the least. One the one hand, I really enjoyed Atwood’s writing and the characters that she creates. On the other, I felt like I wasn’t quite clever enough to be able to follow the various narrative threads and layers of metaphors woven throughout the book.

Thanks Margaret Atwood for making me feel thick.

This book (well, audio book) took me a while to get into as I didn’t understand at first if it was a straight retelling of the Tempest, or a story about doing the Tempest as a production. In the end, it sort of turned out to be both – but I wish I had been more familiar with the original Shakesperean text in order to see how Atwood had used it to inform her characters and the way that the plot developed. I haven’t read The Tempest since school so although I vaguely remembered what it was about (mostly fairies and a shipwreck) I felt like I needed a refresh. At the very end of Hagseed there is a summary of The Tempest and I wish that I had read (heard) this first as it would have helped me to understand the plot far better.

I got very heavily invested in the main character, Felix; a producer of plays who, after suffering the death of his wife and child is forced to retire from his job. He clearly suffers some mental health issues which makes for an unreliable narrator and means you’re never quite sure about the whole madnesss/genius thing. He’s clearly very talented but deeply disturbed by the death of his daughter, so you never know how much of what’s going on is fantasy or reality – much like in The Tempest (not too thick to see the parallels there, Atwood). Felix then goes on to get a job in a prison teaching English and Drama to a group of convicts. Far from resenting the scheme, the prisoners flourish under the tutelage of Felix and he casts them in a number of Shakesperean plays with great success. However, his greatest triumph is his production of The Tempest; the play which originally pushed his previous company to retire him early. Through some cosmic synchronicity and by taking advantage of some of the prisoners ‘skills’, Felix is able to use the play to not only get his revenge but also as a release from the mental prison he has created for himself. Again, this is one of the parts where the book gets very meta – Atwood makes it clear the The Tempest has a number of metaphorical prisons in it, Felix is producing the play in an actual prison, he is living in a mental prison and holding his own daughter prisoner within it… aargh! Sometimes I felt that there were three (or more) narrative threads which were all interwoven and I struggled to grasp all of the concepts. See, told you I was thick.   

You can see Atwood’s love for Shakespeare shining through in many parts of the book. She discusses a range of devices that are used to teach the play to the group of prisoners in order to engage them with the text, such as asking them to spot all of the prisons in the play, asking them only to swear using Shakesperian curses – it made me wish that I’d been taught like that. Did Atwood use to be a teacher? *checks wikepedia* yes, she did! What a guess.

As I said before, I’m not familiar enough with The Tempest to spot all the allegories that I’m sure Atwood has woven throughout Hagseed and as such I felt like there’s a whole level that I  missed – like watching the Simpsons as a child and not seeing all the adult jokes/political bits. My advice would be to familiarise yourself with the original Tempest story before reading this, or just to read the last chapter first. Trust me, you’ll get a lot more from the book if you do. However, despite feeling like I was missing something, I still enjoyed the book. There was a thread of tension throughout – you knew that Felix was planning his revenge but Atwood kept me guessing as to how exactly it would all play out (hahaha, now I’m getting all meta). Once I got into it I did find the story compelling and because I really cared about the main character I kept listening to find out how everything was resolved.

At the end of the book, Felix asks his students to present their ideas on what happens to the characters in The Tempest after the play ends. I felt like Atwood was trying to allude to something here (were the main characters in the Tempest directly represented in Hagseed? I was never quite sure if Felix was meant to be Prospero) but I feel like I missed it. If anyone has read this book and has an opinion please let me know!

Overall, I think that any Shakespeare fan would love Hagseed and I’m sure they would get far more from it than I did. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood and so I enjoyed the book, but I did feel a little lost in places. I think this would be a great book club text because a lot of questions are raised which could provoke some lively discussions. Its just a shame that I have no-one to talk to about it!

Rating: 7/10

  

Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I’ve never read Margaret Atwood before (I know) so this was my first experience of her work. WHY HAVE I IGNORED HER FOR SO LONG???? Seriously, this book (well, audio book) is amazing.

The book tells the story of Charmaine and Stan, a young couple living in a car and struggling to make ends meet since the economy collapsed. Living on Charmaine’s wages in her low paid, dead end job and spending their nights on the lookout for thugs smashing into cars and beating their inhabitants up, they hear about an amazing opportunity to volunteer for a new way of living. The town of Consilience promises full employment, housing, healthcare and a safe environment to live in – and it’s looking for residents. Seems too good to be true? It is – the catch is that you only spend one month at a time there as you have to ‘volunteer’ to spend the next month in prison. Stan and Charmaine have little choice but to sign up and at first they adapt well, but underneath the company endorsed plastic happiness their secret desires fester and manifest themselves in dangerous affairs.   

I found this book to be such an original concept that was amazingly well written and thoroughly engaging. There’s a very small cast of characters but the way that they all interacted and the impact that they had on each other was really fascinating. It’s amazing how Atwood got such a complicated story out of such a simple set up and still managed to tie it all together with a killer ending.

I loved how allegorical the title of the story was. Literally the heart goes last – it’s the final thing to stop working when someone dies (or is killed). In a figurative sense, even when Stan and Charmaine are interested in other people they still somehow love each other. Again, in Stan’s volatile relationship with his brother they always have each other’s backs. When Charmaine is asked to commit terrible acts she still does so with compassion. And at the end – I can’t say too much, but Atwood beautifully poses the question – can we really override our hearts with our heads? Or are our emotions too strong to break?

I also loved how there was a thrilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel. You know that Consilience is going to be a bad idea but the Stepford Wives style township seems to provide safety and security – two things that Stan and Charmaine are in desperate need of. You can tell that the sickly sweet packaging might look pretty now but will make you ill eventually – but what choice do the couple have? The truly terrifying part though is that in today’s political climate, are we really so far away from setting up social housing experiments along the same lines? And do we already have people living in such desperate need that they would willingly sign up? I hope Donald Trump doesn’t read this and get any ideas (no wonder people have protested against him dressed as Handmaids). 

I actually didn’t like any of the characters in the book, but I somehow ended up rooting for them anyway. As I was listening to the audiobook version I think I didn’t fully absorb all of the story because in places I found it a little hard to follow, so I’d like to read it properly. I also found the voices of the actors playing Stan and Charmaine quite annoying (Charmaine in particular was very nasal) but it was obviously intentional as her over-the-top cheeriness belied her underlying unhappiness and at times manic ability to keep putting on a brave face. By the end of the book, I found that this had actually added another dimension to the story (although twelve hours of listening to it is more than a little grating).   

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, especially fans of dystopian futures and intricate fantasy. I loved it.    

Rating: 8.5/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #4 Listen to an Audiobook.