The past is a weight that shapes the characters in Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel, a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. “You think you’re living in the present,” one character thinks, “but the past is right behind you like a shadow.” And later: “What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?” Winterson even offers up a paraphrased line from the original play: “What’s past help should be past grief.”
Like Shakespeare, though, Winterson understands that inevitability doesn’t lessen our sense of loss or temper our regret over time, that we’re haunted by whatever we miss or drive away. And like Shakespeare — at least in his later plays, and The Winter’s Tale is one of them — she understands that forgiveness is the only bridge to a happy (or happyish) ending.
The Gap of Time is the first venture in a new series from Hogarth Press in which contemporary writers will tackle Shakespeare’s works from fresh perspectives. Next up in February is Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice. Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, a twist on The Taming of the Shrew, arrives next summer, followed by Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth — all that hot Scandinavian blood! — and Edward St. Aubyn’s King Lear.
Winterson is the perfect choice to re-examine The Winter’s Tale, stuffed as it is with jealousy and passion, love lost and gained, regret and transformation, subjects she has revisited over and over in her novels (the play, she writes in the book’s final pages, “has been a private text for me for more than thirty years”). Her 1992 novel Written On the Body opens with a cry that would serve equally well for The Gap of Time: “Why is the measure of love loss?” Loss, like forgiveness, is a recurring theme in this story.
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Winterson updates The Winter’s Tale with modern touches — setting the action in London after its recent financial crisis, turning one of the major players into a video game designer, introducing the topic of climate change, even meta-mentioning herself and her novel The PowerBook — but mostly she leaves the story intact. Business mogul Leo (he’s a king in Shakespeare’s version) is obsessed by the idea that his pregnant wife Mimi and his best friend Xeno are sleeping together. Leo’s jealousy is as groundless as Othello’s; no one he loves has betrayed him, but he can’t control himself. He has a webcam installed in Mimi’s bedroom. He sees nothing suspicious but, imagining the worst in an obscene fury, he fumes anyway.
Eventually, he tries to kill Xeno, driving him into exile. Then he steals his own infant daughter Perdita, sending the baby off to the man he swears is her real father. But Fate intervenes, and the child is abandoned and later rescued by a kind widower and his son. More twists and surprises ensue as Perdita — her name means “the lost one” in Latin — grows up, falls in love and begins to piece together her history.
Shakespeare was fond of this sort of absurd plot (as well as shipwrecks, separated twins and disguises of all sorts). Fitting it seamlessly into a modern setting isn’t easy, but Winterson makes The Gap of Time’s oddities work, casting a spell with her own lovely, poetic prose. In one brief scene, a prostitute cleans herself after a quick assignation by the Seine with a young Leo and throws the tissues into the river: “He had a thought that he would be the father of mermaids.” She also skillfully negotiates the play’s swift turn from tragedy to comedy, indulging in the second half’s humor while never losing sight of the larger, more painful issues at hand.
She even adds a motivation for Leo’s insane fury: He and Xeno, who grew up together, were lovers as teenagers, which complicates Leo’s insecurity. He loves Mimi and Xeno; his jealousy cuts both ways. He’s a deeply flawed, angry man who pays a terrible price for his actions. Can he be forgiven? Can any of us? “Forgiveness is a word like a tiger,” Winterson writes. “There’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is.” In The Gap of Time, Winterson reveals the tiger in all its dazzling glory.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Meet the author
What: “An Evening with Jeanette Winterson”
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: Miami Book Fair, Miami Dade College, Chapman Conference Center, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami.
Cost and information: $15; tickets go on sale for members Oct. 21 and to the general public Nov. 4. To become a member or for more information, visit http://miamibookfair.com/