The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson review – an elegant retelling of Shakespeare

This Winter’s Tale ‘cover version’, set in wealthy London and the deep south, kicks off a new series of Shakespeare for the 21st century

Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare – following, so the story goes, “a merry meeting” with Ben Jonson during which he “drank too hard”. Four centuries later, the world remains in thrall; around the globe, commemorations are already under way. With the launch of the Hogarth Shakespeare, then, Vintage imprint Hogarth Press is entering a crowded market, but there is no chance of it getting lost in the scrum. Back in 2013 the publisher announced it had commissioned a range of A-list writers (Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler and Howard Jacobson, among others) to “reimagine Shakespeare’s plays for a 21st-century audience”. Their remit was to move the plays from stage to page; to turn them into novels that would be “true to the spirit” of the originals but which, beyond that, could travel wherever they pleased. Rewriting Shakespeare: for sheer, straight-up chutzpah, it doesn’t get bigger than that.

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first in the series, and her position at the front of the pack leaves her peculiarly exposed. While those who come after will be judged at least in part against each other, for Winterson, at this point, it’s her words against Shakespeare’s. Judiciously, she soft-pedals the comparison by positioning her novel as a response rather than a revision; her task was made easier, too, by the fact that, when it came to the question of which play she would tackle, she was absolutely clear in her mind. “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around, and that carry us around,” she has said. “I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years ... And I love cover versions.”

Cover version is right: there is a lovely, lilting cadence to Winterson’s tribute to Shakespeare’s penultimate play, and music itself is a presence throughout: as metaphor, mood-setter and even, on occasion, catalyst. The time in her novel is something like now; the action transplanted from Shakespeare’s fantasy kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia to London’s rich, ruthless, high-rise core, and to a deep south American city reminiscent of New Orelans, where the nights are “hot and heavy” and the hospitals have “baby hatches” in which lost children can be found.

King Leontes – whose venomous accusations of adultery against his wife, Hermione, and Polixenes, his childhood friend, galvanise the action in The Winter’s Tale – becomes Leo, a hedge fund manager who uses money and status to bludgeon his way through the world. Hermione is made over into French chanteuse MiMi, whom we first see “smiling, happy, heavily pregnant”; Polixenes is Xeno, a quixotic video game designer whose ambiguous sexuality creates the tension on which the story turns. The characters are contemporary, but the novel maps itself on to the play, plot-point by plot-point. Xeno learns that Leo, mad with jealousy, plans to murder him; he flees. Leo accuses MiMi of infidelity. MiMi gives birth to a daughter, Perdita, whom Leo cannot accept as his own, so he bribes his gardener (a modern-day member of his retinue) to get rid of her.

All of this is stylishly done. Winterson’s replacement of Leontes’ court with today’s money markets – the real seat of contemporary power – is smart and witty, and Xeno’s professional forays into virtual reality give her scope to retain some of the play’s more mystical elements without calling the novel’s realism into conflict. There are occasional jolts (the character of Autolycus, reimagined as a used-car salesman, loses something in translation), but the richness of her language, the swing and swoop of her sentences, smooths out the transitions and eases us over the joins. What’s more, despite her faithfulness to Shakespeare’s storyline, Winterson manages against the odds to keep us gripped. By providing her characters with rich backstories (Leo’s seeming insanity in the opening scenes makes a horrid sense in light of the history Winterson imagines for him), she wins our sympathy and so injects a real sense of jeopardy into a familiar tale. It’s no mean feat.

But while this fleshing-out enriches the novel, it also removes that element of the play which makes it so powerful. The Winter’s Tale splits audiences: an odd, jumbled, tonally dissonant but ultimately transcendent affair, it delights some and alienates others, but whether you’re a fan or not, its power is undeniable. And that power derives from the fact that so much of what happens within it (in particular the famous closing scene, in which the statue of Hermione turns out to be Hermione herself) remains unexplained. Where Winterson furnishes us with interpretations of the characters’ behaviour, Shakespeare leaves spaces; baffling blanks into which we’re obliged to project our own reckonings. Ultimately, the provision of concrete explanations is reductive: they close the play’s possibilities down.

“The past is never dead,” said William Faulkner, “it’s not even past” – and if The Winter’s Tale offers us any message, it’s this. The play itself, first published in 1623, is still with us, too – and we come back to it not because it offers answers, but because it poses questions to which we have to find answers of our own. The Gap of Time is Winterson’s answer, and it’s a good one: compelling, entertaining and elegant. Shakespeare’s play, though, contains the possibility of all our answers – which is why, if people are still around 400 years from now, they’ll no doubt still be watching and reading it.

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage, £16.99). To order a copy for £12.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Sarah Crown

The GuardianTramp

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