Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, which I have not read. I worried that might make this review unfair, but then I realized there's got to be a good number of Margaret Atwood fans (or fans of literary fiction in general) who might be interested in Hag-Seed but also haven't read The Tempest. If you belong in that category, this review is for you.
First of all, I don't think you have to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed. Atwood includes a plot synopsis of the play, but at the back of the book — I took this to mean she also doesn't think you need to know the original story to enjoy Hag-Seed. That said, I can imagine that familiarity with the original story would be helpful. But I'll get back to that later.
Here's the basic plot of Hag-Seed: Felix is a play director who finds himself ousted from his position. He subsequently flees from all aspects of his previous life and holes up in a cave-like dwelling out in the middle of nowhere. For work, he secures a position as a teacher at a correctional center, with the condition that he be allowed to base the curriculum on a study and performance of a Shakespearean play. Meanwhile, he is dealing with his own demons — the grief of a past tragedy, the spite towards his ousters, his desire for revenge. All of this culminates in Felix's decision to have his inmate students perform The Tempest, both as a way to exorcize his demons and as a vehicle for revenge.
To return to a previous point — you don't have to have read The Tempest to enjoy this book, but I'm willing to bet the story would be a lot more enjoyable if you had. There are plot contrivances that are understandable only because I know Atwood was following the original story. The characters are a bit uneven — the prisoners, particularly, seemed less believable as actual contemporary criminals than as background players in a Shakespearean comedy. I can, however, imagine the delight I would've experienced in connecting Atwood's story and characters with the original.
I have always loved Atwood and there are certainly moments that shine for the writing. I particularly admired the sympathetic and believable depiction of Felix's relationship with his deceased daughter's ghost. But what I enjoyed most is the depiction of Felix's classes. As an English teacher, it tickled me to see a skilled teacher tease meaning and intrigue out of a Shakespearean work, especially since I will be teaching Shakespeare for the first time this year. Would that I be half as inspiring as Felix!
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.