Jeanette Winterson is one of my favourite writers of fiction and non-fiction. Her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011) was a revelation. I was introduced to her work at university with the by now classic novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). Her Lighthousekeeping (2004) is one of the most moving love stories I have ever read. Among many texts, it echoes Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The main character Silver reappears in other Winterson novels. As does the line: “Tell me a story.” Winterson is known for her retellings of myths and legends, her writing is rich in intertextuality. I loved her modern rendering of the Atlas myth, Weight (2005).
The Gap of Time, Winterson’s latest novel, is also a cover version of a famous classic, no other than Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is the first book in a series launched in October last year which aims to reimagine Shakespearean works for our generation. Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name was published last month. Upcoming titles include such promising treats as Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, or Gillian Flynn’s version of Hamlet.
One does not have to be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy The Gap of Time. For those unfamiliar with The Winter’s Tale, the original is summarised in the beginning of the book. But Winterson’s brilliant interpretation is self-reliant and can be read independently.
“The story has to start somewhere”, but not necessarily at the beginning. The Gap of Time begins in the middle: Shep, a jazz bar owner, and his son Clo witness a murder. At the same time, they discover a little girl “as light as a star” in a baby hatch of a hospital nearby. Because the child reawakens Shep’s belief in love, which he lost when his beloved wife died of cancer, he decides to adopt her.
The story moves back in time to when the ruthless businessman Leo accuses his wife pregnant wife MiMi of having an affair with their best friend Xeno, and of carrying his child. Although both deny the accusation vehemently, Leo attempts to kill Xeno and refuses to acknowledge his daughter when she is born. His rampant jealousy results in a tragedy which leaves no one unscathed.
Years later, fate leads two young people to fall into love, but their respective family histories might ruin their chance at happiness. With great emotional and psychological depth, Winterson’s tale examines the notions of family and what it means to love, “to know something worth knowing, wild and unlikely and against every rote.” She exposes the foolishness of taking love for granted and allowing chances at redemption to slip us by.
As Winterson writes in the end, the reason Shakespeare endures is because stories of revenge, tragedy and forgiveness are universal. This superb twenty-first century retelling speaks straight to our contemporary, post-Freudian consciousness and touches our ancient hearts which continue longing for the recognition of the magic they are capable of.
The Gap of Time
by Jeanette Winterson
Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015
Review first published in the Cape Times, 1 April 2016.