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Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's contribution to the Hogarth Press's series of contemporary reworkings of Shakespeare. It's a Russian doll of a book, a retelling of The Tempest which is also a novel about a production of The Tempest which is derailed, for at least some of the audience, by an act of revenge based upon The Tempest. The central character is Felix Phillips, a somewhat experimental theatre director (his productions include Pericles with spaceships and The Winter's Tale with Hermione as a vampire) who is dismissed from his post as Artistic Director of a theatre festival due to the manipulations of the scheming, ambitious Tony. He disappears from public view, living like a hermit in a tumbledown shack and dreaming of revenge. His opportunity arises after he takes a job running an adult literacy programme in a prison, teaching medium-security prisoners (hackers, fraudsters, pickpockets) to perform Shakespeare, when he discovers that his enemies will be attending the performance, and sees his chance to act.

It's beautifully written, as you'd expect from Atwood; sparkling, witty, compassionate, moving. The structure enables her to explore the original play and characters both through the retelling and more directly, as Felix and his class prepare for their production. I think it was particularly good to read this the week after seeing the live streaming of the RSC's current production of The Tempest, as that meant that the plot was fresh in my mind (I found while watching the RSC production that I'd forgotten quite a lot of the plot), though I think the book would still have been enjoyable if I hadn't remembered it so clearly or even if I didn't know the play at all.
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I bought my copy of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Asssassin just after we moved to Oxford, in early 2001, but then I never got round to reading it; there were always other books, and for a long time I read so little, and so slowly, that I was daunted by the prospect of embarking on a book of more than 600 pages. Happily, these days I'm reading more and faster, and long books are no longer offputting, and as I'm going to see Atwood speaking at the Sheldonian in November I thought I ought to try to catch up on her back catalogue.

The Blind Assassin is an intriguing, multi-layered novel. The main narrative is reminiscent of a family saga, set in smalltown Canada in the 1920s and 30s, as Iris Chase Griffen, now in her 80s, remembers her childhood and early adulthood and her relationship with her sister Laura. We learn two things about Laura at the start of the novel: that she killed herself just after the end of World War II, and that she is the author of a celebrated posthumous novel, The Blind Assassin, and this novel, the story of a love affair between two nameless characters, is woven alongside Iris's narrative, a novel within the novel. There's also a third narrative, as the man in Laura's novel is a writer of pulp SF and spins out a story, or several stories which sometimes intersect, across their many meetings, and a running commentary of newspaper stories. Atwood is a skilful enough storyteller to let the multiple narratives twine around each other, occasionally intersecting, creating a space between them which coalesces into the shapes of the secrets which have been hidden for half a century and which only Iris is left to remember.

It's not a happy book; it's full of loss and heartbreak and empty, unfulfilled lives, but it is beautifully written and vivid and made me stop and think about what being alive really means, and it reminded me (if I needed reminding) just why it is that Atwood is one of my favourite writers. She doesn't deal in comfort, but she always captures the truth.


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