It’s a brisk, sunny morning, much closer to seasonal temperatures than we’ve had recently, and I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bare from City Cafe while I think about our book club discussion yesterday morning.
One of my book club members recommended Margaret Atwood’s book Hag-Seed some time ago, and since we haven’t read an Atwood novel in a while, I put it on the list for our March meeting. I knew nothing about this novel, but the cover always put me off, as it looked like this book belonged to her more “dystopian” books (Oryx and Crake, MaddAddam and Year of the Flood), which did not really appeal to me (I’ve only read one, but that was enough). It is, in fact, a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it was classic Atwood, particularly in her brilliant use of language. Felix is the Artistic Director of the popular Makeshiwag Theatre Festival and is planning his most daring play ever, an interpretation of The Tempest like no other. But when his position is usurped by his right-hand man, Tony, he exiles himself to a hovel in a nearby township, where he spends twelve years plotting his revenge. Added to his loss of position was the death of his three-year-old daughter Miranda, and his guilt over her death while he was away directing a play has festered. He finds the perfect venue for his revenge as the instructor of a theatre program at nearby Fletcher Correctional Institute, where he directs Shakespearean plays with groups of inmates in a “Literacy through Literature” program. He chooses The Tempest, using various techniques to entice the prisoners to take on certain roles, and also plots a secondary interactive scheme to exact revenge on those who forced him “off the throne”, so to speak. What results is complex, brilliant, and totally effective, a pure reading delight. I can’t give anything away, because part of the joy of reading this book is the mystery of Felix’ plan, and how he will pull it off. But here are some of the highlights of our discussion. One member wondered whether Felix was a madman or a genius, or maybe a bit of both. She thought his teaching technique with the prisoners was fantastic. We thought Atwood did a good job of portraying the prison culture, and we learned alot about staging a play and theatre culture, too. One member thought that there was an overwhelming sense of sadness about Felix, that he exuded a sense of loss, loneliness and isolation, and that putting on this play was necessary for him as part of his grieving process, both to bring Miranda to life but also to let her go. We thought the writing style was amazing (no surprise there!), but that the cover was off-putting. One member had the book from the library for a few weeks but was reluctant to pick it up until the library sent a notice that the book was due and she realized that it was time to start reading (like me, she enjoyed Atwood’s earlier novels, but was turned off by her more recent “speculative fiction”). To her surprise, she loved it and finished it in just two days! We discussed the structure of the novel, and felt that it worked, and we enjoyed the rap songs that the prisoners/actors made up to make some of the more tedious parts of the play more interesting - we even read one aloud, each taking a stanza (seasoned rappers we are not!). We especially enjoyed the scene when Felix takes the train into Toronto to purchase props and costumes for the play, and how creative he has to be to make this work (my favourite part is when he is buying a blue bathing cap for the actor playing Ariel, and his impromptu explanation to the middle-aged saleswoman in the swimwear shop). We discussed the final section of the book, when the actors speculated about what they thought happened to their characters after the play ended. Some thought they would have been just as happy if the novel ended before this section, but then we thought that it was a bit like real actors debriefing after their final performance. It also showed how far each of the prisoners had come in such a short time, that they really grasped the meaning of the play and understood their character. This novel is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare, a project that employs bestselling authors to retell Shakespearean plays in contemporary settings. Some of the other novels in this project are Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice), Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew), and New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Othello). This led us to discuss why there are so many retellings of Shakespearean plays, and the difficulty in studying the original plays due to the language. All in all, it was a successful meeting and a great book choice, not one any of us would have picked up on our own.That’s all for today. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but bundle up, as it’s still chilly!
Bye for now…