I’ll be frank, I don’t spend much (any) time reading Shakespeare. I’m not filling weekends with sonnets or amusing myself with the Bard’s wittier plays. My Shakespearean experience is largely confined to school days; performances of A Midsummer Nights Dream in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens; and a few months during my childhood when we lived in a small town near Stratford-upon-Avon. So why was I drawn to a modern retelling of The Winter’s Tale? It was all about Jeanette Winterson, whose work I greatly admire.
The Winter’s Tale tells the story of a king whose jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter and the death of his beautiful wife. His daughter is found and brought up by a shepherd but through a series of extraordinary events, father and daughter, and eventually mother too, are reunited. In Winterson’s version, The Gap of Time, it’s all gangsters, gaming and pop stars, and against this backdrop, the themes of jealousy, loyalty and redemption are preserved.
Winterson gives Shakespeare’s characters fitting modern identities – Leo the ruthless businessman; Mimi, his wife and a famous singer; Xeno, Leo’s friend, a nomadic video-game designer; and the pedlar Autolycus, becomes a used-car salesman – “Part crook, part sage.” Each is intriguing in their own way.
Winterson plays with the concept of time – there are overt references, themes of how the past mortgages the future, and the idea that time is an element of fantasy (merely another ‘player’ in the game of life) –
“I ran after her. I called out, ‘Lady!’ She turned round. She looked at me. There was a second, the kind that holds a whole world – and then the second hand moved on and she was gone.”
The Gap of Time is layered with fables and fairy tales – the tale of an angel is incorporated into the modern world of gaming; the action shifts between London and ‘New Bohemia’; Leo’s great wealth is contrasted against car-chases and baby adoption scenes that would not seem out of place in a story set in the 1920s. It’s fanciful yet real.
“I lift the baby out and she’s as light as a star.”
I particularly loved a moment toward the end, where Winterson writes from her own perspective and in doing so, takes a step back from the story – we are mere observers of the action – and then, after a short commentary about The Winter’s Tale, she returns us to the end of the story. It sounds clunky and yet it was a surprisingly clever way to remind the reader of the roots of this story – a play, written for the stage.
Finally, as always, Winterson’s language is beautifully crafted –
“The street had all the heat of the day, of the week, of the month, of the season. When the hail hit the ground, it was like throwing ice cubes into a fat fryer. It was like the weather was coming up from the street instead of down from the sky.”
4/5 If you enjoy Shakespeare, you’ll enjoy this. If you enjoy Winterson, you’ll enjoy this. If you enjoy a retelling, you’ll enjoy this.
I received my copy of The Gap of Time, from the publisher, Hogarth, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. The Gap of Time is the first in Hogarth’s Shakespeare series in which contemporary writers retell the plays.
Leo and Perdita meet at a bar – vodka and langoustines are consumed.