When we were in London last year, as I was meandering around the airport when I saw a new-to-me book by Jeanette Winterson: The Gap of Time. When I came home, I had to wait because the American edition was slower to reach here. When I finally read it, I devoured it. I was fascinated by Winterson’s reinterpretation of The Winter’sTale. Then I had a chance to read Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice. Both retellings were immediately compelling reads, fascinating in how they modernize the stories, and was especially intrigued by Jacobson’s ability to make Shylock a sympathetic character, something which is too often not attempted.
So naturally I wanted to read Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, an author whose writing always compelled me to read just-on-more-chapter before bed. I had devoured, and highly recommended, Atwood so many times, I just knew this novel would blow me away. Which is why I was surprised to find myself struggling to care for Felix Phillips, the protagonist of Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. I often went a day or two without even opening the book, not really caring about Felix’s self-exile after he is forcefully removed from his position as director of a festival where he often leads productions about Shakespeare. The fact that Felix, who has lost his only child, is preparing a production that will, in some way, heal the wounds of loss he’s suffering adds some pathos but I didn’t care.
The novel is structured in five parts, much as a Shakespearean play is divided into five acts. For me, the novel didn’t take root until Felix finds himself working in a prison, training the prisoners in theater production, from acting to video editing. It is possible that part of the reason this is where I became more engaged with the novel is that I expected the author, who is known for her nearly prescient nightmare visions of futures that seem far to real and realized, would address the understandable concerns regarding privatization of prisons, prisoner recidivism, and such within the overarching focus of revenge and redemption.
In other words, I wanted to love this novel and had expectations for it based on a familiarity with Atwood’s illimitable talent and yet, even when I felt more involved with the story, I never truly cared for anyone. I didn’t care about Felix or his need for revenge. I didn’t care about the prisoners or their production. I just didn’t care. And one thing I can say with confidence is that, even when Shakespeare told a story that didn’t immediately engage me, at least I cared about the characters. So this novel, although well written and masterfully crafted, left me disappointed.
I recommend Atwood's The Blind Assassin which, although I found it somewhat predictable, I definitely enjoyed. I also "enjoyed" The Handmaid's Tale, a disturbing novel. Although I didn't like it quite as much, I would also say that if you like dystopian novels, there's The Heart Goes Last. I also recommend The Edible Woman which I read over 30 years ago and can still recall with some clarity.