Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood brings Shakespeare’s Tempest to life but Mona Awad misses the boat with All’s Well

Six years ago, I read and loved this book so much, I continue to recommend and gave it the highest tribute: buying a copy for friends. One said she never would have picked this one up after seeing how dark The Handmaid’s Tale (1983) was. I hope others enjoy this novel as much as I did.

The transposition of Shakespeare to a contemporary prison setting is something I have not seen before among the stacks and stacks of new books that come out every year. Who knew convicts could spin a tale of linguistic dexterity, using the iambic pentameter of hip-hop? None other than Margaret Atwood, that’s who, with “Hag-Seed,” a retelling of “The Tempest.”

Pub Date 11 Oct 2016 
Crown Publishing, Hogarth

Widowed, then bereft of his only child, 3-year old Miranda, Felix has been using his passion for Theater as some sort of catharsis. Felix is one of those cutting-edge, contemporary Artistic Directors who keep theater from ever getting stale or predictable, but in his grief, he’s become a little too original, or flamboyantly crazy. His extravagant plans for The Tempest are thwarted, he himself is thwarted, and his entire career is thwarted. Tricked, betrayed, and suddenly exiled, he does something so many of us have dreamed of: he suddenly disappears from society. Drops off the face of the Earth. Most people assume he’s dead.

He actually doesn’t go very far at all. With a little backwoods shack and a sketchy land-lady who asks no questions, Felix lives out the next twelve years in obscurity. Even when he gets a new gig staging theater productions in a prison, he’s able to preserve his anonymity. It helps that the great Felix was never quite as famous as he liked to think.

The cast of prisoners is funny and heartbreaking, and of course, Felix manages to instill in them his own love of Shakespeare.

I blush to confess: the Bard was never my favorite author. Back in his day, those plays must have been a hoot. Today, the tragedies weary me, and the comedies require such a stretch of imagination and new vocabulary words, I forget to laugh. This novel, however, makes me think I should try harder to see what the fuss is all about. Hundreds of years later, Shakespeare is still more worthy of high school students’ attention than any other writer? I think his plays are only as good as the actors performing them. Just reading the plays and writing essays about them seems more like torture than erudition.

The best part of this novel is seeing what 21stC prisoners do with a 15thC script. The opening pages are hilarious. I’m reminded, in a good way, of “Hamilton: An American Musical” with music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I love the opening scene with the boatswain narrating from a tempest-tossed ship, “Trim the sails, fight the gales,” and Voices Off lamenting, “We’re all gonna drown!” Somehow, I actually laugh out loud when the alarmist boatswain carries on until “A bucketful of water hits him in the face.”

Don’t take my word for it that this is brilliant and comical. Read the opening pages for yourself. The contemporary twists bring the old Bard to life.

The rest of the story is poignant as well as entertaining. Parallels to “The Tempest” are numerous and more fun for the reader to discover than to read about here.

As Miranda does with “Hamilton,” Atwood peers deep into something old and familiar, sees that common folk from long ago expressed the same concerns we have today, then opens the door that lets a cool new breeze blow away the dust of centuries. Using the vernacular of the streets, she reinvents Shakespeare, elevating the iambic pentameter of hip-hop to a comedy-drama.

For some readers, the story might seem to move slowly, then explode into action at the climax, with a swift and perhaps too-neat resolution, and not much real danger for our heroes. I was okay with that. The ending is satisfying. Line after line of memorable prose leads us there, and Atwood achieves more than a cultural re-imagining of Shakespeare. She weaves current affairs into an age-old tale, making the old new again, and showing us that today’s “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” concerns are not so new, after all. And that, really, is more reassuring than demoralizing. We’re all in the same boat. Think quick, keep cool, remember to laugh, and we’ll stay afloat.

THANK YOU to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of this book.

Arlind Fazliu asked Margaret Atwood at Goodreads: What would be your advice for a young writer before he starts writing? And how many hours a day do you write ?

Margaret Atwood Hello: My first advice would be: don’t listen to any advice before you start writing. Just start. If you listen to too much advice you will get overwhelmed. Once you start, you will find out what you need to know next.

Another author, perhaps inspired by Atwood’s “Hag-Seed,” published a novel about a woman directing a Shakespeare play. I was not impressed.

Mona Awad knows pain. She gets it. She really gets it. She really, really, really gets it, in excruciatingly exacting detail, page after page, totally nailing it. On the one hand, I identified with Miranda Fisk and her chronic, invisible pain. I have wished the throbbing, red network of hidden pain could be made visible, like bruises and wounds gushing with blood, so that others would believe it's real, not in our heads. And I know, all too well, this endless parade of doctors, physiatrists (not to be confused with psychiatrists), the testing, the procedures, the false hopes, the blank stares and this weird insistence that pain is mostly mental. Yes, Awad really knows her stuff and articulates it vividly. 

We all fall, one of Miranda's physiatrists reminds her. "But sometimes we want to hold on to the pain. Sometimes we have our reasons for not being able to let go."

I had just read those words at a website on Buddhism and in a chapter of Echkhart Tolle's Power of Now, the ridiculous chapter on pain. Also, I had been reading the New Age or Buddhist or Catholic mystic concept, "All is well, and all shall be well." These ideas were left in open tabs on my screen. Then came this NetGalley ARC titles "All's Well," and it's praised by Margaret Atwood, author of "The Tempest," a hilarious tale of a theater director getting prisoners to put on a Shakespeare play. So, this Simon and Schuster novel (not a self-pub!) must be good, right?

Well, the words are cleverly strung together in pretty sentences and vivid prose, but man, oh man, does the self-pitying Miranda wallow in her pain, page after page,  I identify with her and those doctors and all those well-meaning friends and loved ones who try but just don't get it. But I don't like being in Miranda's head, her pain body, her Point of View, even after her pain goes away and her body feels young and alive again.

The shift begins when Miranda, perhaps in a drunken haze, meets three men in a bar.

I know, that sounds like the start of a joke. But these men! They're like modern-day, male incarnations of the witches in Macbeth, and they're also more up close, in your face, and personal. They notice Miranda. They notice her pain. They see that she is hurting! "It's a wonder you can stand at all," one says. Who are these men, these men who see her, who know her? They see her pain. More than that, they tell her that pain can move. Yes, really. Pain can switch, easily. "From house to house, form body to body. You can pass it along, you can give it away. Piece by piece." Did I mention that they remind me of the witches in Macbeth? Oh, but they're so much better. They know what to do with trouble. You can give your pain away to someone else. "To those who might need it."

And this is when things get creepy.

We don't understand how it's possible, but it happens. With a mere touch to the wrist, Miranda transfers her pain to one of her most obnoxious acting students. She transfers some to her awful physiatrist, the annoying Mark. She even passes some of it to her beloved (but annoying, of course!) friend Grace. I will not describe how these people shut down, or how Miranda reacts to the reversal of fortune. I will only say that she doesn't strike me as a very nice person.

One weird aspect of the book is the way Miranda left her husband, who tried so hard, but she was this pathetic, sexless, damaged, pain-ridden woman. When she starts feeling miraculously good again, she's all over a guy who reminds her of ex, to the point that she keeps calling this guy the same nickname she had for her husband. It's one of many really weird things about Miranda and her hazy, spacy, feverish new outlook on life. She thinks out loud, it seems, or people read her thoughts, and her thoughts are way out there, as if she were tripping out on some new pain killer.

Seeing Miranda transfer her crippling aches and pains to others (who maybe "needed" this eye opener, this suffering) made me wonder whether Miranda really deserves such a long reprieve. Her attitude continues to be self-absorbed. The three men show up again and again, bringing more miracles, making it possible for Miranda to stage The Tempest when her mutinous students want to put on Macbeth, and all through the novel, references to the Shakespeare plays kept me reading. We keep hearing about Helen, poor martyred Helen, and the jerk who doesn't deserve her love, Bertram. We keep hearing how young Miranda, prior to her descent into pain, played Helen on stage like no other actor before or since.

A subplot involving Ellie and her bath salts kept me wondering. What's the point? Ellie believes Miranda's recovery is thanks to these bath salts which Miranda says she has been using, but for no good reason, she has not. Nope. No salts in her bath, but Miranda lies, routinely. She lies to Ellie. She tells her health care team "Yes, I feel better now," because they apparently cannot accept it when shell tells them their treatments make her pain worse. If something had come of this sad subplot, in which women lie and say they feel better when they don't just to get people to let up already, if some insight or wisdom had unfolded from it, ok, those scenes would justify the amount of space they take up in the novel. But all these long, repetitive, dragging, wearying pages of pain just go nowhere. Oh, Miranda transfers her pain to others, and fear not, these mysterious victims will not remain incapacitated with pain for the rest of their now-miserable lives. There's more "magic" coming. From whence, we will never really know.

And that's unfortunate. Readers invest a lot of time in a writer's flight of fancy, aka a novel, and authors do have some burdon of proof to offer, some way of explaining, of making the impossible seem plausible. No such attempt seems to be made here. Creepy, weird magic happens, and Miranda feels guilt for being an inadvertent practitioner of black magic. Ellie seems to be a more active and cognizant practitioner, getting the universe to comply with her wishes, but it's all hastily summarized, and not even Ellie's concoctions and bath salts can be credited with some of the bad juju or voodoo.

The climax is so weird, I won't even go there. Suffice to say, I found it all disappointing. It all strained credulity past the breaking point, past the sounds of bones literally breaking. The person who falls-- to what looks and sounds like certain death-- just gets up and walks away. Why? What is the point of this impossible plot twist?

There was no one I could like, not even the three men, who go so far as to make "All's Well" come to life again with Miranda, only to walk away disappointed. No, this is not a spoiler; Just when it seemed the three men were figments of Miranda's imagination, someone else describes them, exactly as they had looked to Miranda, so who are they and what really happened here? A more astute reader than I may be able to tell.

Awad can write beautiful prose, but she needs a judicious editor, someone to help her sort out the plot and let the reader escape into a story without all the snarls, pitfalls, and knots.

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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