‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson ***

In justifying her choice to retell The Winter’s Tale as part of her contribution to the new Hogarth Shakespeare imprint, Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around.  I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years’.  Rather than refer to her newest offering as a retelling, she prefers to call it a ‘cover version’.  Hers is the text which launches the new series, which will feature contributions from several of the world’s most prominent and important contemporary authors, including Margaret Atwood, who takes on The Tempest, and Anne Tyler, who has chosen The Taming of the Shrew.  The series aims to ‘introduce’ Shakespeare’s plays to ‘a new generation of fans’.  Hogarth Shakespeare itself is a member of Shakespeare400, which has been coordinated by King’s College London, to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

The blurb of The Gap of Time states that it ‘vibrates with echoes of the original play but tells a contemporary story of betrayal, paranoia, redemption and hope…  It shows us that however far we have been separated, whatever is lost shall be found’.  Here, Winterson tells the tale of Perdita, ‘the abandoned child’, whose story has a lot in common with her own.  It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time that Winterson has turned her hand to creating a retelling of sorts; Weight, about the myth of Atlas and Heracles, was part of the Canongate Myths series, and is well worth seeking out.

The Gap of Time consists of two plots, which intertwine at pivotal points.  The first of these is set in an area of the United States called ‘New Bohemia’, and deals with a black man named Shep, who finds a white baby during a storm.  The second – which is nowhere near as compelling, and flounders in places – takes place in London, just after the 2008 financial crash.  Here, Leo Kaiser is ‘struggling to manage the jealousy he feels towards his best friend and his wife’.  These plotlines merge seventeen years later in New Bohemia, when ‘a boy and a girl are falling in love but there’s a lot they don’t know about who they are and where they come from’.  Winterson tells ‘a contemporary story where Time itself is a player in a game of high stakes that will either end in tragedy or forgiveness’.

A nice touch is that the book opens with Shakespeare’s original plot; this leads nicely into Winterson’s own handling of the material.  She keeps each of the main elements of the original play, but invents more modern-sounding concepts and constructs to really put her own spin on things; for example, the BabyHatch which is installed outside the hospital which Shep walks past, and which allows parents to neglect their babies in rather a humane fashion.  She is masterful at immediately setting the scene: ‘I saw the strangest sight tonight.  I was on my way home, the night hot and heavy, the way it gets here at this time of year so that your skin is shiny and your shirt is never dry.  I’d been playing piano in the bar I play in, and nobody wanted to leave, so I was later than I like to be’.  Her descriptions, whilst not threaded throughout the entire text, are often quite sensuous in a simple manner: ‘The street had all the heat of the day, of the week, of the month, of the season’.

With the construction of several of her characters, there seems to be an overriding honesty.  Winterson has used both the first and third person perspectives to break up the separate stories here, and the former – particularly when it also uses a sort of stream-of-consciousness technique – makes it feel very personal: ‘I sat in the car like this after my wife died.  Staring out of the windscreen seeing nothing.  The whole day passed and then it was night and nothing had changed because everything had changed’.  The third person perspective does distance the reader from Leo’s story, however.  The present tense has been well cultivated, and gives a sense of modernity to the whole; it pulls it firmly into the twenty-first century.  Poignant phrases and ideas have been made use of too: ‘What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?’, and ‘I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there’.

In The Gap of Time – and, indeed, with respect to the Hogarth Shakespeare series in its entirety – it is demonstrated that Shakespeare’s themes are still universal in the modern world.  His stories are just as relevant today as they were when he was writing, and the relationships built between characters are just as perceptive.  In The Gap of Time, darkness creeps in where one least expects it, whether you are familiar with the original or not, and Shakespeare’s story has definitely been well transplanted into the modern age.

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