For as long as readers have enjoyed the works of Shakespeare, there have been adaptations of his many works. I fondly remember the first time I watched Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Adaptations are great for demonstrating just how timeless Shakespeare’s works are. I picked this one up at my local bookstore excited to read Jeanette Winterson’s twist on ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ The Gap of Time is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare range, in which well-known writers adapt their favorite Shakespeare plays into new novels. This will be a new experience for me for two reasons-I’ve never read this particular play nor anything by Winterson. Fortunately, I really loved this book with a contemporary look at classic Shakespeare themes of love, jealousy, and forgiveness.
Winterson’s update transports the story from London to the American city of New Bohemia. On a rainy day, Shep and his son Clo discover a horrendous crime scene and find an abandoned baby in a baby hatch. Still recovering from the recent loss of his wife, Shep decides to raise the child as his own. Later, we discover the circumstances of this lost foundling who arrived from across the pond. Leo is a successful businessman who is fueled by an intense jealousy of his wife and best friend Xeno. The inability to handle these feelings of mistrust lead to the devastation of Leo’s relationships. Years later and through some chance encounters, the foundling Perdita becomes reacquainted with her lost family.
Having never read this play, I went into this with zero expectations. The beginning of the book gives a short summary of the original play. Although I’m sure I missed some of the more subtle connections, the brief synopsis was a definite help. Winterson has a great writing style that balances tragedy and humor quite well. In the matter of a few sentences, she can take you from comedy to high philosophy quite well. Her characters are unbelievably well drawn and complex (essential for Shakespeare). Even with characters I shouldn’t like such as the sexually aggressive and violent Leo, Winterson manages to show some of the fear behind his all-consuming rage. This addition of a great backstory to Xeno and Leo help give these former friends greater depth, something I’m sure was lacking in the original version. I found the character of Autolycus ridiculously charming. It takes a lot of talent for a writer to both incorporate and alternate tragedy and comedy to the levels that Winterson brings this.
This isn’t perfect by any means, as some elements didn’t quite work. However, I attribute this to be the problem of transitioning a play into a full-length novel. In ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Shakespeare creates emotionally complex situations that must be solved by the close of the play. The problems in A Gap of Time resolve in the final section rather quickly so it all feels a bit rushed. For example, I can’t say I buy into Leo’s sudden change of heart. In real life, issues on this scale would take years to fully heal.
This is a really interesting novel with great characters and an interesting plot. I look forward to reading more from Hogarth including Margaret Atwood’s take on ‘The Tempest.’ Winterson has crafted a well-written contemporary classic.
“What is a memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?”
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