Bailey's Prize, books, Reading, Women Writers

“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood

“That devious, twisted bastard, Tony, is Felix’s own fault. Or mostly his fault. Over the past twelve years, he’s often blamed himself. He gave Tony too much scope, he didn’t supervise, he didn’t look over Tony’s nattily suited, padded, pinstriped shoulder. He didn’t pick up on the clues, as anyone with half a brain and two ears might have done. Worse: he’d trusted the evil-hearted, social-clambering, Machiavellian foot-licker.” 

Felix Phillips is a giant (at least in his own mind) of theater. The reigning artistic director of a hag_seed_5_17small town acting company, Felix is unceremoniously, traitorously ousted from his position by his protege, Tony, with a perfunctory “heart-felt thanks” and a security escort to his car.

“Creativity. Talent. The two most overused words in the business, Felix thought bitterly. And the three most useless things in the world: a priest’s cock, a nun’s tits, and a heart-felt vote of thanks.”

Felix finds himself untethered and persecuted. His narcissistic self pity is darkly comical. In his unwavering self-obsession, he ruminates on past wrongs done to him.

“His wife, Nadia, was the first to leave him, barely a year after their marriage….He was just discovering her virtues, just getting to really know her, when she’d died of a galloping staph infection right after childbirth.”

His wife’s tragic death was her leaving him.

As Felix flounders and wallows, spending years as a hermit in an abandoned cabin, he realizes – eureka – that he needs direction. “He required a focus, a purpose. He gave this much thought while sitting in his deck chair. Eventually he concluded that there were two things left for him – two projects that could still hold satisfaction.” These seedling projects are to finally stage his rendition of the Tempest, which was cruelly wrested from him in his ouster, and to exact revenge. Hijinks and drama inevitably ensue.

Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed” is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which acclaimed modern authors retell Shakespearean classics. “Hag-Seed” is itself a retelling of the Tempest, and cleverly includes the play within the novel’s retelling – a narrative matryoshka doll, a play within a play. It is conceptually quite clever and is deftly written, with frequent moments of pithy humor and caustic wit.

I am undeniably a Margaret Atwood fan and find her works dark, original, and brilliant. Somehow, however, “Hag-Seed” lacks the emotion and the weight of most Atwood works. This book feels more superficial and polished, where her depth and grit are usually so prominent. It could be the atypical focus on writing male voices, the restrictions of working within an existing story framework, or perhaps the pressures of remaking Shakespeare, although her source material and her concept are robust. To me, there was just something lacking in the execution.”Hag-Seed” didn’t channel Atwood’s voice and passion, or at least it didn’t communicate them to me. In the end, this book read more like a movie script than an engaging novel, like it needed another medium to give it life. Not what I’ve come to expect from Atwood and, in my mind, not quite up to par for the Women’s Prize short list.




4 thoughts on ““Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood”

    1. That was precisely how it read to me. I’ve seen others, too, comment that the writing felt blueprinted at times. All in all, entertaining but not the force one expects from the likes of Atwood.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve thought many of her recent novels were losing their spark, to be honest, so I wasn’t that surprised by the relative middlingness of this one. That said, mediocre Atwood is better than good most-anyone-else, since her grasp of language’s rhythms and her humour are so on point. I really liked it as another way of thinking about The Tempest, but have to agree with you—probably not a shortlister.


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