Thursday 14 December 2017

Silly, inspired daftness from veteran Atwood

Fiction: Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood, Vintage, hdbk, 293 pages, €15.99

Having fun: Margaret Atwood
Having fun: Margaret Atwood
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Unlike most of her peers, Margaret Atwood has always flitted between genres. While all her work is evidently "literary" - beautifully written, tackling big themes, psychologically astute and intellectually profound - she's never limited herself to similar books in similar settings.

Novels like Surfacing and Cat's Eye are contemporary and realist. Alias Grace is historical, The Heart Goes Last a kind of futuristic comedy. The Handmaid's Tale and MaddAddam trilogy (of which Oryx and Crake is the opener) are sci-fi, though Atwood prefers the term "speculative fiction". Booker-winning Blind Assassin enmeshes realism, fantasy, legend and storytelling itself in a wonderful kind of Russian doll.

Meanwhile, The Penelopiad, released in 2005, was a droll retelling of the Odyssey, as part of Canongate's Myth Series. Atwood's latest, Hag-Seed, is a companion piece of sorts, in that it also reworks a classic: in this case, Shakespeare's play The Tempest. (This, too, is one of a series, called Hogarth Shakespeare: Gillian Flynn tackles Hamlet, Jo Nesbo does Macbeth, and so on.)

Here, Atwood whooshes the tale of Prospero and his magic into modern-day Canada, where Felix Phillips is an experimental, larger-than-life theatre director. Just as he's about to stage a hugely ambitious performance of The Tempest, he's usurped as artistic director of Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by Tony Price, a power-hungry and unscrupulous cad who sees this gig as a stepping-stone to political success.

A short while beforehand, Felix's three-year-old daughter Miranda had died, so his sense of loss is doubled, even multiplied. He suffers a kind of mental breakdown, and goes to live in a barely inhabitable shack where the only thing keeping him going is the dream of revenge… and the ghost of his daughter.

She was called Miranda - same as Prospero's daughter - and speaks to Felix. Cleverly, Atwood keeps us guessing as to whether or not Miranda is really there: Felix constantly vacillates between believing the girl is real, and knowing that she's not, and engaging in double-think whereby he feels both are true simultaneously. A few years pass, and Felix gets back on the theatrical horse by taking a job as literacy teacher at a nearby prison. He treats the inmates with respect and tough love, and within a few years they're producing annually a decent interpretation of a different Shakespeare play.

Then Felix hears that his old nemesis Tony - along with another man who'd wronged him - will be visiting the prison. They don't know that this progressive drama teacher, Mr Duke, is actually Felix Phillips, and he still dreams of vengeance…

It's all great fun, full of wit and invention and incident. A short book, Hag-Seed barrels through the narrative at a quick clip, but Atwood dwells long enough on colour and shade to make these characters seem (mostly) real to us. And there's great skill and assurance in how she makes comprehensible what eventually turns into a play within a play within a play. The Canadian grande dame also stands apart from the crowd in that she's always been a genuinely funny writer. Parts of Oryx and Crake, for instance - while the book itself is one of the darkest, most pessimistic that I've ever read - are properly spit-the-coffee-out hilarious.

And Hag-Seed is very funny, very often. The scenes where Felix's hard-chaw prisoners insult each other strictly through Shakespearean language are especially enjoyable.

The novel doesn't feel particularly profound or life-changing; some of it is quite silly, almost farcical, and I don't see Hag-Seed achieving a place on university syllabuses like some of Atwood's other books.

But there's something fantastic about watching a veteran author (she's almost 80) having so much fun, challenging herself, amusing herself, surprising the audience. Give me this inspired daftness over the usual "established author" thing of cranking out yet another dreary iteration of the same dreary work, any day.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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