There is probably not another writer who could make me read a Shakespeare play. Jeanette Winterson, whose writing always excites me, has filled the role that no English teacher ever played for me during my school days. Because I had not realized she included a summary of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of her retelling, I read the play first and enjoyed it more than I expected I would. That in turn enhanced the sheer fun of reading The Gap of Time.
It is a story that works on the equation of jealousy plus power equals bad stuff happens. Leo, an unemployed banker following the crash of 2008, was so talented at making money that he started his own hedge fund in the middle of the ensuing recession and became disgustingly wealthy. Then he convinced the beautiful and talented MiMi, famous songstress, to marry him. Yet within eight years, just before the birth of their second child, Leo fell into an insane jealous conviction that MiMi and his best friend were having an affair, meaning the baby was not his. Using his wealth and power he proceeded to ruin numerous lives and lose everyone he cared about.
In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes is a King, Hermione is his queen, and Polixenes, also a King, is Leontes’s childhood friend. Leo is the modern equivalent of royalty, a king of finance. Xeno creates brilliant games and takes the video sport to sophisticated new levels of content. He is also gay, in love with both Leo and MiMi, though not cuckolding Leo. It’s complicated, as we say in modern parlance. A tragic love triangle as they said in the 1600s.
Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, spiced his play with humor. I don’t know enough about his oeuvre to speak of his talent for tragicomedy. I do know that Jeanette Winterson ran with the comic bits, making use of the dark hilarity in our modern era. As far as philosophizing about tragedy and time, her talent is equal to the bard’s.
Within the first twelve pages she is slinging around sentences like this: “You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow.” “What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?” “I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there.”
The Winter’s Tale has a dearth of back story. Winterson provides us with plenty: how Leo and Xeno became best friends in boarding school after some severe maternal rejection; how Leo met MiMi and got Xeno to play Cupid during the days of courting; how the man who ended up raising Perdita, the daughter Leo gave away, came to be the wise and cool dude he is; and a few more. Brilliantly done because the somewhat unlikely happy ending in the play becomes a believable outcome in the novel.
I could say more. It is a complex tale and several other characters help make it so. An abundance of delectable scenes, snappy dialogue, and digressions about the vagaries of time, make the reader feel she is watching a Shakespeare play. I don’t want to spoil the magic.
Judy Krueger has been reviewing books since 2009. She also runs a literary blog http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com. She is a member of at least 5 reading groups and reads 7 to 10 books a month. Every now and then, she works on the autobiography of her life as a reader or on her novel in progress. You can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JudyJudykrueger.