Book reviews: Novels offer 21st century take on Shakespeare

Jamie Burgess/For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Book review
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“Nutshell,” by Ian McEwan

Two of the world’s greatest working writers are putting an end to the question of Shakespeare’s relevancy in the 21st century.

Ian McEwan, who has been nominated for the Man Booker prize an impressive six times, released “Nutshell” in September. While the novel proudly shows its debt to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” with an adulterous affair between Trudy and her husband’s brother, John, the premise is entirely original. The Hamlet of Shakespeare’s play is often accused of being infantile, but even he could not possibly be as young as the narrator of McEwan’s novel, who is telling the story from within his mother’s womb. That’s right; this entire novel is told from the perspective of a fetus, witnessing not only the affair but also the murderous plot that follows.

If a snarky fetal narrator sounds unappealing or implausible, rest assured that McEwan’s mastery of language makes this a highly inventive work of art. The narrator is both clever and funny, a poet with a taste for fine wine, who easily mocks a world from which he remains apart. Even in-utero, he has more layers than most, exposing a tangled web of psychological factors that take root in the Hamlet whose indecision has driven audiences, and Ophelias, mad for more than four centuries.

Reminiscent of McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach” for its brevity and beauty of prose, “Nutshell” is both beautiful and frightening, driven by an incredible wit.

“Hag-Seed,” by Margaret Atwood

“The Tempest” has taken on new relevance as environmental discussions escalate, because the play is one of the only instances in which Shakespeare’s plot is driven by setting and extreme weather conditions and not only by interpersonal relationships. No wonder Margaret Atwood attempted an adaptation of “The Tempest” in her newest novel, “Hag-Seed,” released Oct. 6, given her penchant for environmental activism.

Atwood is a heavily-awarded author, and she has previously explored gender roles with her celebrated book “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Now, she tackles environmental issues in “Hag-Seed,” making an important political statement in a dire political (and environmental) climate. “Hag-Seed” confronts its Shakespearean connections head-on, as the reader follows the protagonist, Felix, on a long journey to directing a version of “The Tempest” in modern-day Canada. When he is accused of being too controversial and is fired, Felix must strike out on his own, but he never cedes the idea of seeing his artistic creation brought to life.

The novel handles all aspects of the production of “The Tempest” with vivid detail: The costumes, stage directions and artistic concepts are conceived and executed such that the reader is caught between the two genres: the novel and the script. Atwood’s originality in bringing “The Tempest” to life forces a closer look at Shakespeare’s unanswered questions: What, exactly, is Caliban, and does this play have a purpose without a Miranda?

Though paying homage to one of the founders of the literary tradition in the English language, both of these books are innovative, inspiring works of art that stand alone.

These books are available at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path.

Jamie Burgess is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path. Find her at

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