December 2015 - January 2016

Noted

‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson

By Helen Elliott
Cover of The Gap of Time
Hogarth; $29.99

Jeanette Winterson is the first in a stellar line-up of writers asked by Hogarth to retell a Shakespearian play that is of particular significance to them. Winterson, who was adopted as a baby, chose The Winter’s Tale. “It’s a play about a foundling. And I am [one],” she tells the reader. A difficult work of jealousy, revenge and tragedy, The Winter’s Tale is Shakespeare’s last “great” play, but, for all its many glories, it has a convoluted plot and some fantastical moments that have always asked too much of some viewers.

Familiarity with the Shakespeare heightens the pleasure of the Winterson. She is faithful to the play’s plot, in which a neurotic and jealous husband thinks his wife and his best friend are lovers, and refuses to believe the child she is carrying is his. He tries to murder the best friend, then imprisons the mother and puts her on trial for adultery. He banishes the new baby, a girl the mother named Perdita (in Latin, the lost one). By various theatrical mechanisms, almost two decades later, and in another kingdom, Perdita, who was rescued by a shepherd, meets the best friend’s son and they fall in love. All this leads to a heartfelt and joyful reconciliation. Of sorts.

Instead of Shakespeare’s strange and fantastic lands, Winterson sets her tale in high-end London and low-end States. Leontes, Hermione, Polixenes, Florizel and Paulina are updated to Leo, MiMi, Xeno, Zel and Pauline. Only Perdita remains herself.

Perdita is one of Shakespeare’s most tender creations, and Winterson’s character also enchants. She works in her adopted father’s piano and sings with a girl-group, although reading is her thing. In mechanic Zel, she finds someone who loves reading as much as she does. It is for both a coup de foudre, but for Perdita it unravels the story of her birth and reveals the possibility of finding that which has been lost.

Winterson’s intention is to retain the pace and dramatic flair of the play. She’s a conjurer of language, swinging between excess and austerity, and the manic brilliance yields moments of tremendous warmth. Yet the result can be too close to a performance that risks leaving the reader empty; the aggressiveness of her style sometimes blunts her delicacy of insight. In the final pages she steps up as author, and literary professor, explaining that Shakespeare’s late plays are about forgiveness and The Winter’s Tale is revisiting Othello, the story of a man “who would rather murder the world than change himself”. Her clear voice slicing through the complicated plot comes as a relief.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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