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

  

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Review: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

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This book was #6 on my Book Riot Read Harder Challenge list: read a biography.

I just want to put this out there before I begin – I absolutely love Bill Bryson. I started reading his books when I got into my latter teens and his funny, observant travel documentaries allowed me to see the minutiae of the world from the comfort of my own home. Bryson has an innate talent for making the mundane seem endlessly fascinating. His attention to detail is second to none and it makes his writing on the most ordinary topics (see At Home – a history of the everyday items in your house) thoroughly enjoyable and accessible.

He doesn’t disappoint in this biography of William Shakespeare.

I am not what you would call a fan of Shakespeare. I chose to study Romeo and Juliet as my mandatory Shakespeare module at school because A) it was the shortest of his plays and B) there was a film version that I could refer to to understand what the hell was going on. Suffice to say, if anyone other than Bill Bryson had written this book, I wouldn’t have read it.

But thankfully, he did. And I loved it.

The thing with Bryson is that his research is utterly meticulous (or at least, it comes across that way). I trust him more than any other non-fiction writer to actually say what is fact, what is unproven rumour and what is nonsense. I get the sense that Bryson LOVES to find a well known ‘fact’ to debunk because this book refers more to what we don’t know about Shakespeare than what we do. It may be the only biography in the world where the reader knows less about the subject than they did before they started reading it.

The book is typical Bryson fare – we learn all about the life of Shakespeare with a focus on the quirky and unusual aspects of his life. Funny and informative, I thought it was a great read.

Overall rating: 8.5/10.