The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In this contemporary 'cover version' of The Winter's Tale, Winterson links a London financier, a Parisian singer, and a blended family in New Orleans. Inventive and true to the themes of the original, but ultimately adds little to one's experience of Shakespeare.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2014
Publisher: Hogarth
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781781090299

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This is the inaugural volume of a new series of Shakespeare retellings from Hogarth Press. Still to come: Margaret Atwood on The Tempest, Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler on The Taming of the Shrew, among others. How is this first book? It's pretty good as Winterson novels go, incorporating Shakespearean themes of time, deception and adoption and turning bears and statues into metaphors while remaining loyal to the essence of the plot. Yet two crucial elements of the play don't make sense in a modern setting, and in the end I felt this added nothing to my enjoyment of the original.

Winterson creates clear counterparts for each of Shakespeare's characters, often tweaking the names so they are still recognisable but a bit more believable for the modern age. Notably, she opens in the middle, with Shep (Shepherd) discovering the foundling child. In the aftermath of a violent car chase they witness, he and his son Clo (Clown) rescue Perdita from the hospital 'BabyHatch', where she has been left with a briefcase full of cash and diamonds, and raise her as part of their family.

At this point we retreat to London in the wake of the financial crisis and Occupy movement. Leo (Leontes) is the rich manager of a hedge fund called Sicilia. He is married to MiMi (Hermione), a beautiful French-American singer who is eight months' pregnant with a baby Leo refuses to believe is his. Through flashbacks, we see how he and MiMi met in Paris and learn about his youthful sexual encounter with his best friend, a gay video game designer named Xeno (Polixenes). Reading too much into innocent encounters captured on a spycam, Leo insists that Xeno is the father and sends the baby away – returning us to the point where we started.

'The Day of Celebration', my favourite part, is an excellent forty-page section that would function as a stand-alone story. It's a sheep-shearing festival in the original, but here has been translated into Shep's 70th birthday party. New Bohemia is a rough copy of New Orleans, so parties involve gumbo and hillbilly soul covers of classic oldies tunes. Autolycus, a shady used-car dealer (Auto – get it?), tricks Clo into buying a DeLorean for his father, while Perdita sings with her girl-group of foundlings and falls in love with Zel (Florizel). Especially in this section, the dialogue is great, and all the different interactions crackle with possibility.

I like the way Winterson has incorporated the themes and language of the original. She is an adopted child herself, so the play's contrast between makeshift and biological families has personal significance for her. Xeno's video game, also called 'The Gap of Time', brings in angels and feathers, while other key images come through in metaphors like 'He was built like a small bear' and 'They were like statues.' I also appreciated this comically drawn-out simile: 'Clo was looking like that cat who got the cream, the kippers, the peanut butter, the sliced chicken and a lifetime's worth of genetically engineered slow-moving mice.' In general, Winterson has preserved the play's meditation on the past and its regrets.

However, there are two elements of the plot that feel out of place in an otherwise fully modern setting. How could an abandoned baby not be found for 16 years? And how could MiMi so effectively hide in Paris that there would only be a few sightings in that same time? In the twenty-first century, Perdita would have been retrieved and MiMi exposed after minimal sleuthing. I also found some of the characterization to be rather campy: Autolycus is a stereotypical conman, while Pauline's Jewishness is played up to the point of farce.

That said, Leo is an effective villain at this time of demonization of financiers, and questions about time and purpose are always relevant: 'Is life just a series of accidents that from a distance look like patterns?' Zel asks. 'Life can't unhappen,' he adds. Whether or not you're familiar with The Winter's Tale, you might like to pick this up – if only for the birthday party sequence. I'll be hoping for better things from the rest of the series, though.

Further reading suggestion: Capital by John Lanchester similarly captures the mood of London after the financial crisis. Other Winterson books that dwell on themes of time and adoption are Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and Tanglewreck.

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