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The Gap of Time


The Gap of Time

I’ve been eagerly anticipating for some time now the launch of Hogarth’s ambitious new project, commissioning acclaimed contemporary novelists to write prose retellings of Shakespeare’s plays. The series kicks off with Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of “The Winter’s Tale” and will follow over the next few years with retellings by Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, Jo Nesbø, Gillian Flynn, and several other popular and award-winning novelists offering reimaginings of plays that they love.

If Winterson’s initial offering, THE GAP OF TIME, is any indication, this series is going to be even better than I had imagined. Winterson calls her novel a “cover version” of Shakespeare’s play, which she helpfully synopsizes in the opening pages, since “The Winter’s Tale” is hardly Shakespeare’s best-known play.

Winterson sets her story (which is remarkably faithful to the original) in modern-day Europe and America, or some version thereof. Leo, torn between the desire to possess his wife MiMi entirely and his secret desire for his lifelong friend Xeno, accuses the two of having an affair. He contends that MiMi’s unborn child is actually Xeno’s, and when the daughter, Perdita, is born, he hires an acquaintance to abduct the baby and take her across the ocean to New Bohemia, in search of Xeno, who has fled there.

"Winterson manages to be both funny and thoughtful, maintaining and even escalating the buffoonery of some of Shakespeare’s characters while highlighting the pathos of others."

But the messenger comes to a bad end, and instead, Perdita is adopted by a grieving man, Shep, and his somewhat foolish son, Clo (his name is “The Clown” in the original play). She has a happy childhood, in large part thanks to the money that Leo packed with her and that sustains Shep and Clo, enabling them to purchase a piano bar that becomes a sort of nerve center for their rural community. But at Shep’s birthday party, Perdita begins to fall in love with Zel, a boy who works for an unscrupulous auto dealer named Autolycus. Zel, as it turns out, is Xeno’s estranged son, and when Xeno realizes who Perdita is, the wheels are set in motion for what becomes an unexpected but entirely satisfying conclusion, celebrating forgiveness, hope and the power of love.

Set in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, THE GAP OF TIME simultaneously addresses age-old themes like these while still feeling very current (the culminating scene takes place against a backdrop of gentrification and its discontents). Winterson manages to be both funny and thoughtful, maintaining and even escalating the buffoonery of some of Shakespeare’s characters while highlighting the pathos of others. The novel is full of strong images --- of fallen angels who populate the story in many different ways, of music and musicians --- and the whole thing, as the title suggests, is something of a meditation on the mutability of time.

At the end, as Winterson injects herself into the plot (which she does earlier, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek metanarrative), she steps away from the narrative to comment on her own deep connection with and affection for Shakespeare’s play, calling it “part of the written wor(l)d I can’t live without.” Winterson’s explanations for her affinity with the play and its characters will lead readers to want to (re)read the author’s other autobiographical works. Her masterful and supremely creative and satisfying “cover version” of “The Winter’s Tale” undoubtedly will lead many to want to explore Shakespeare’s original --- again, or for the first time.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 9, 2015

The Gap of Time
by Jeanette Winterson

  • Publication Date: June 21, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth
  • ISBN-10: 0804141371
  • ISBN-13: 9780804141376