The Gap of Time is such a beautiful book. Winterson is a master of language, and she plays with Shakespeare’s tale in such clever ways that it feels both homage and update, Shakespeare’s original not so much retold as teased out and turned inside out. There’s a playfulness to Winterson’s tone, a lilt to her cadence that hints that she doesn’t take all of this too seriously, yet there is also such lyricism in the language that she manages to evoke depths of emotion all the same. It’s a linguistic feat worthy of Shakespeare himself, and thus such a fitting “cover” of his work.
Take for example the beginning, where a man named Shep finds a baby “light as a star” abandoned near a hospital, and decides to adopt her as his own:
I played the song and I taught it to her. She was singing before she could talk.
I am learning to be a father and a mother to her. She asks about her mother and I say we don’t know. I have always told her the truth — or enough of it. And she is white and we are black so she knows she was found.
The story has to start somewhere. (page 23)
The words are simple and straightforward, yet the rhythm almost feels musical. Contrast that with the harsh momentum in the story of Leo, a man whose irrational jealousy ends up destroying his family:
Leo swivelled round to the window. He hated his friend for fucking his wife. Weren’t there enough women out there? Everywhere he went, bars, clubs, hotels, boats, there were identical-looking women searching for men. Long hair, long legs, big sunglasses, moulded tits, vast handbag, killer heels. You could rent them for the weekend except that it wasn’t called renting, but both parties knew who paid and who put out. (page 39)
You could just feel his anger bubble up and about to burst through. Winterson’s story isn’t meant for stage, but there’s a stage-like quality to her writing, a sense that you’re watching the action unfold rather than just reading about it.
Gap of Time is a cover version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. You don’t need to know the original to appreciate this story; the novel begins with a handy recap of the play. One of Shakespeare’s later plays, it was never one of my favourites, mostly because I felt Leontes (Leo in Winterson’s version) got off too easily with his own happy ending despite all the havoc he wreaked on other people’s lives. Winterson’s version makes me appreciate the story more, and while I still can’t bring myself to feel sorry for Leo, I appreciated how Winterson’s book makes clear how much Leo’s darkness is within him and how much his suffering ends up self-inflicted.
I also love the other updates Winterson made to the story. She weaves in issues of race (a white girl adopted by a black man and his son) and sexuality (the tension between Leo and his best friend Xeno is partially due to them having once been lovers and there are hints that Leo’s homophobic comments to Xeno are actually rooted in fear of his own sexuality). She also ramps up the metaphor, but does this so beautifully that it feels natural rather than heavy-handed. Xeno invents a video game inspired by a story of an angel who is trapped in a courtyard, and as time passes in the game, Time itself eventually becomes a character in its own right. I’m not quite sure what it means, and there’s a moment where Winterson blurs the lines so I’m not sure if the characters are playing the video game or moving about in the real world. I didn’t like that ambiguity, but I think the metaphor of the game is beautiful overall.
Towards the end, Winterson breaks the fourth wall and deliberately steps back to let the story play out without her. Up until that point, she has moved the characters around, between London and New Bohemia, between the past and the present, and just before she breaks that fourth wall, she situates the characters just so. It’s masterfully done, a playwright/director creating a tableau just as they signal the curtain to fall. There’s an artifice to Winterson’s presentation, certainly, but it’s deliberate and, to my mind, done really well. We know, somewhat, how the story will end, because we know how Shakespeare’s original ended, and despite Winterson’s weaving in of new themes like race and sexuality, she consistently stayed true to the flow of the original. And yet we are still swept away. The emotions are still real, the characters still fleshed out, and the wordplay simply magnificent.
I loved this book, and I’d love to read more of Winterson’s works, to see how her magic with words can bring her own stories to life.
Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.