45. ‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson

I picked up this book at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Jeanette Winterson was there discussing this book – her adaptation of the Shakespeare play, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ – and giving a reading from it. I went to the festival determined to save my pennies and not buy the book, but the reading was so good that I had to (and I got it signed too)!

The Gap of Time is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare range, in which well-known writers adapt their favourite Shakespeare plays into new, novel-length stories. Jeanette Winterson said that this play has always resonated with her because it is about a foundling, like her. I haven’t read or seen the play, so I went into this story with no expectations about where it would go.

jeanette winterson the gap of time

One day, in the American city of New Bohemia, Shep and his son Clo stumble upon a terrible crime scene and discover an abandoned baby in a baby hatch. In a moment of impulsiveness, fuelled by the recent death of his wife, Shep takes the baby and decides to raise her as his own. Across the pond we meet Leo, his wife, MiMi, and his best friend, Xeno, and watch as their relationships fall apart in spectacular fashion. Xeno escapes to America and buries himself in the creation of a hugely literary and emotionally charged video game. Years later the foundling girl, Perdita, reconnects with the people who abandoned her and discovers the truth about her missing family.

I’ve only read one Winterson book before this one – The Stone Gods – but I could recognise a similar writing style in this story. Winterson balances humour and tragedy very well (pretty essential for someone adapting Shakespeare), and she can take you from frivolity to philosophy within a few sentences. Her characters are unbelievably well drawn and she manages to add complexity to people who could otherwise come across as quite two-dimensional. For example, Leo is a violent, sexually aggressive man (as demonstrated by one particularly brutal and quite disturbing scene), but we do get to see some of the fear behind his all-consuming rage. I particularly loved the relationship between Leo and Xeno (Winterson’s versions of Shakespeare’s two warring kings, Leontes and Polixenes). Winterson gives them a history involving a deeply complex web of emotions, including love, betrayal and guilt. It gives a little more context to Leo’s anger and Xeno’s despair when the friendship finally falls apart.

jeanette winterson signature

Some elements didn’t work quite so well, but I think that goes back to the original form of the story. In ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Shakespeare creates emotionally complex situations that must reach their height and be resolved within the time it takes to perform the play on stage, just a few hours. Thus the novel also tries to have characters wrap things up that would, in reality, take years to come to terms with. For example, Xeno basically checked out of his son Zel’s life for years – forgiveness for that sort of thing doesn’t just happen.

This is a really interesting book and I’d love to know what people who know the play well think of it – I imagine there are lots of references and in-jokes that I simply didn’t get. But knowledge of the play is certainly not essential for enjoying this book. It’s a gripping, well-told story and certainly one worth reading.

“Free will depends on you being stronger than the moment that traps you.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

What do you think?

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