Despite its title, this novelization of The Tempest explores the perspective not of Caliban, the enslaved witch’s son, but of Prospero, his magician master.
The latest in The Hogarth Press’ series of Shakespeare retellings is Atwood's (The Heart Goes Last, 2015, etc.) take on tyranny, betrayal, and art. In dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the feminist master of literary science fiction explored the fate of the oppressed, but here she focuses instead on the power of an artist to reimagine his fate. Her Prospero, the actor/impresario Felix Phillips, has spent too many years ignoring office politics so he can concentrate on “the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he has made such genius use.” As a result, he’s been ousted as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his scheming second-in-command, Tony Price (Antonio), and the Chair of the Board, Lonnie Gordon (Gonzalo). Fleeing the scene of his betrayal, Felix changes his name to Mr. Duke and finds refuge in the Literacy Through Literature program at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, a job he agrees to take only if he’s allowed to direct the inmates in Shakespeare plays. There he plots revenge, which unfolds when Tony, now Minister of Heritage in the Canadian government, along with Lonnie and assorted other dignitaries, makes a photo-op visit to see Felix’s production of—what else?—The Tempest. Once Felix has his enemies isolated in his dominion, he directs his sprites—the inmate actors—to bewitch, drug, and humiliate them, exposing their treachery. The plot’s self-referential layers recall Prospero’s famous “air, thin air” speech about actors. But despite this clever construction and a few genuinely moving moments involving Felix’s dead daughter, Miranda, who died of meningitis as a toddler and whose spirit hovers through the story Ariel-fashion, the bulk of the novel can feel like spending some 300 pages in a high school English class. The inmate-actors seem more like puppets than people; oddly, the most forgettable is the eponymous Caliban-counterpart.
Deliberate and carefully built, this novel rarely pulls off true theater’s magic of transforming glitter confetti into fairy dust.