Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood review

Hi everyone! I’m back with another Hogarth Shakespeare review. This time it is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood which is a modern retelling of the Bard’s final play, The Tempest. The novel is set in Canada and our protagonist is Felix Phillips, the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. However, before he is able to stage his production of The Tempest he is usurped by his right-hand man, Tony Price. Retreating to a hovel in the middle of nowhere, Felix yearns for revenge. Finally he spots an opportunity; teaching the ‘Literacy through Literature’ programme at Fletcher Correctional Institute. He can put on his play at last, and wreck vengeance on his enemies. But will he succeed?

I really enjoyed the novel. I have seen The Tempest live, as well as watched film versions, and Hag-Seed might be one of my favourite adaptations. I think Atwood really captures the essence of the play and the characters. Watching the rise and fall of Felix (and his attempt to rise again) was fascinating. He was such a complex character. At times I was very emotional and really rooting for him, yet he still had flaws. The moments where Felix reflects on his late family and his imagining his daughter with him was especially poignant. But you quickly realise he was far too caught up in his work to notice his daughter’s health, and ultimately didn’t see the error of his ways until it was too late. Felix was very human and his story arc was a delight to read.

I also equally loved reading about the inmates that would become Felix’s cast and crew. At first I thought it might be a bit confusing, that the names might all bleed into one and they would be a homogeneous group. That’s not the case. I think they were all given such distinct personality traits and different voices that all the actors were unique. My favourites were 8Handz (who plays Ariel in the play) and Leggs (who plays Caliban). I loved the discussions they had with Felix, especially in relation to their characters. As Ariel and Caliban are my favourites from The Tempest anyway, I found the conclusions the characters came to fascinating. Atwood had to juggle a lot of very different voices but she does so successfully.

The humour in Hag-Seed was well done. I always liked the comedic elements in The Tempest as it helped the storyline from becoming incredibly grim and depressing. Atwood’s wit shines through here, and there were a few one-liners and observations that made me smile. The comedic and dramatic elements blended together well, with Felix finding something amusing even in the darkest of times. His attempts to encourage his actors to play Ariel, despite their reluctance to be seen as a ‘fairy’ was particularly memorable.

Overall Hag-Seed is an excellent novel, working as an adaptation of The Tempest and a standalone piece of work. I don’t think you need to have read or seen the play before reading the novel. There’s a handy synopsis of the original at the back in case you wanted to know more though! The characters were well-written and the blend of humour and drama was perfectly judged in Atwood’s brave new world. I would really recommend picking up Hag-Seed, Shakespeare fan or not.

Hag-Seed is published by Vintage as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. More information can be found here.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler review

Warning: review contains spoilers  

Hi everyone! This is my review for Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler which is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. For those who might be unfamiliar with the series, various authors have been given different Shakespeare plays to adapt into modern retellings. As I’m a massive fan of Shakespeare, and obviously write a book blog, I thought I would read and review them all in between the other reviews. Some have already been released while there are plenty more in the pipeline, so if you’ve already read one or are really excited about a particular adaptation, drop me a comment as I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And now on to the review! Vinegar Girl has set the action of The Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore, with the novel following Kate Battista, a 29 year old pre-school assistant who lives with her autoimmune professor father Louis and teenage sister Bunny. Juggling her job plus household duties, Kate is unfulfilled with life. However it is all about to change, as her father arranges for her to meet his lab partner Pyotr. His visa is set to expire soon, and with her father’s work nearing a significant breakthrough and Kate’s lack of romantic options, she is faced with a bizarre proposition; will she marry Pyotr so he can remain in the country?

I will be honest, The Taming of the Shrew is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. But it is a damn sight better than Vinegar Girl. My biggest gripe is with the characters. I was shocked to learn that Kate was 29. From the way she was portrayed I had assumed late teens/early twenties. She seemed very stroppy and sullen throughout, not one ounce of wit compared to her Shakespearean counterpart. There were one or two moments of vulnerability from her, but not enough for me to actually feel sorry for her plight. Kate just seemed like a teen going through a ‘I hate everyone/everything’ phase. The fact she had that attitude but also did nothing to change her circumstances, really irked me. I think this total lack of initiative also made the fact she was a grown woman unbelievable. She has a job, if she doesn’t like having to live with her family, she could surely afford to move out?!

The other characters do not fare much better. Louis Battista is the stereotypical ‘mad scientist’, putting his work before everything, including his daughters. Bunny comes across again as the stereotypical ‘blonde bimbo’, although to be fair to Tyler she breaks out of this later in the novel (I’ll mention why later). The biggest victim to the stereotype is Pyotr. Although it is never explicitly said, it is alluded to that he is Russian. At first I was interested. There could be the possibility of a culture clash, something I hadn’t seen in versions of Taming. This could bring something new to the story. No. I was wrong. Instead most of the jokes seemed to revolve around his accent, his forgotten or mispronounced words being a recurring gag. It was a cheap laugh that I didn’t find funny, just lazy. I was disappointed in Tyler as I think she is very talented and she could have come up with much better, nuanced portrayals than these.

But (if you want to avoid spoilers you might want to stop here) when I got to the second half of the book, my disappointed increased tenfold. My main problem with Taming is the portrayal of women, especially Kate after she marries Petruchio and he basically abuses her into submission. I know this is me reading an Elizabethan play from a modern perspective, and I know I probably shouldn’t do that, but I still find it uncomfortable. So when Pyotr started to show signs of being emotionally abusive, I was curious as to how Tyler would handle this aspect of the story. How would Kate react? Her wishes are ignored, he constantly demeans her (another gag of his is to constantly refer to her as a ‘girl’ and she corrects him) and at one point openly yells at her like she was a badly behaved dog. What would she do?

Nothing. She does nothing and seems to ignore his actions. Bunny, who is the only character who seems to notice the abuse, even tells Kate that Pyotr broke into their neighbours’ house and assaulted Bunny’s boyfriend. He confirms this, suggesting that the man deserved it. Kate not only seemed totally fine with her partner committing battery, but even defends his actions. I was stunned. Here was someone who was verbally and physically abusive, yet was being portrayed as the romantic hero. The ‘happy’ ending made me incredibly angry. Maybe if Tyler wanted to highlight abuse and explore why people stay in harmful relationships via this adaptation I would not have a problem. But given that quotes on my edition’s cover includes ‘her funniest book to date’, ‘delightful’ and ‘beautiful’ I don’t think that was what she was intending.

Yes there were moments where I smiled to myself, particularly the scenes set in the pre-school. However there was nowhere near enough of those moments for me. Combined with lazy stereotypes and the glossing over of abuse, sadly I cannot recommend Vinegar Girl. Kiss me, Kate? No thank you.

If you would like more information, you can find Penguin’s website here.