The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s “late plays.” It tells the story of a king whose jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter and the death of his beautiful wife. His daughter is found and brought up by a shepherd on the Bohemian coast, but through a series of extraordinary events, father and daughter, and eventually mother too, are reunited.
In The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s cover version of The Winter’s Tale, we move from London, a city reeling after the 2008 financial crisis, to a storm-ravaged American city called New Bohemia. Her story is one of childhood friendship, money, status, technology and the elliptical nature of time. Written with energy and wit, this is a story of the consuming power of jealousy on the one hand, and redemption and the enduring love of a lost child on the other.
Even the most devout Shakespeareans have trouble with his late plays the ones where lost children reappear, the dead live again, and, with enough coincidences and unlikely events, King Lear level tragedy ends happily. Winterson (The Daylight Gate), however, loves The Winter's Tale so much that she's written a "cover version" of it in this, the first in Hogarth's Shakespeare series in which contemporary writers "retell" the Bard's plays. She replaces King Leontes with Leo, an arrogant English money manager; old friend King Polixenes becomes Xeno, a video-game designer. As in the play, Leo's conviction that the child his wife is carrying is not his but Xeno's results in broken hearts and ruined friendships, exile, and a daughter turned foundling, raised by a bar owner and his son in a New Orleans like city. But Winterson doesn't just update the story: she fills in its psychological nuances. Why would Leo suddenly decide his wife is sleeping with Xeno? Winterson's backstory can't justify his actions, but it does add fascinating context. And in her version, the violence, by turns comic book and terrifying, happens onstage, not off. It's fun to see Winterson solve the play's problems, but the book's real strength is the way her language shifts between earthy and poetic and her willingness to use whatever she needs to tell the story (angels, video games, carjackings). She makes us read on, our hearts in our mouths, to see how a twice-told story will turn out this time.