The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a really exciting new project you need to know about! Many of the stories of Shakespeare’s great plays originated elsewhere. He retold, reformed, remade them in brilliant, poetic, dramatic works. Now, some of our most skilled contemporary authors are doing “cover versions” by writing their own take on these stories inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. The series kicks off with Jeanette Winterson’s “The Gap of Time” – a novel inspired by The Winter’s Tale. Let me assure you that this new novel isn’t a mere creative exercise, but a vibrant and lively work of art in its own right. Honestly, I was slightly sceptical about the enterprise. Rewriting Shakespeare? It could all go wrong, right? What Winterson does is give a very personal take on Shakespeare’s play by capturing the essence of his drama and adding her own heartfelt perspective on life.
If you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale have no fear. The book opens with a summary of the play. In Winterson’s novel, the central characters are recast as contemporary figures recognizable in today’s society. Leo is a high-powered and tyrannical banker involved in the financial crisis of 2008. His wife Mimi is a well-known singer who is pregnant. Xeno is Leo’s lifelong homosexual friend who is a game coder. There is a misunderstanding fuelled by jealousy and a tragic mishap occurs: “The important things happen by chance. Only the rest gets planned.” Mimi’s child is mistakenly given away and left in a BabyHatch (a compartment at a hospital where babies can be left anonymously). Many years later the child has grown up into a sensitive singer named Perdita who was raised by a good man named Shep. The drama continues from here where Perdita eventually discovers and returns to the place where she originated. Not only is it a perfect anaphora that Winterson would cover The Winter’s Tale, but the story comes very close to home for the author who herself was a child that was given away. When the drama of this novel ends, the author steps in to confide in the reader what a personal story this is and give her enlightening thoughts about the power of Shakespeare’s writing.
As befits the title, one of Winterson’s primary concerns in this story is time. Time is its own dimension. On the subatomic level it doesn’t function the same way that it does in our understanding of reality. Nor does own personal sense of time plod along in such a linear fashion. The author understands this. Winterson writes “time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.” In this novel people’s actions disrupt their sense of time. People become caught in the past and the future. They lose their sense of the present. The characters seek to radically rewrite time just like in the movies referenced such as Back to the Future and Superman where the world is spun backwards to change the course of events. Only by breaking down the boundaries between each other can they form a new understanding of time. This sounds very abstract, but it takes on an incredibly poignant meaning within the story and I found myself welling up in scenes like when Perdita must rush Shep to the hospital. A personal crisis like this can collapse anyone’s sense of time.
This Shakespeare project does in creative form what all of us do in our imaginations when reading: re-imagine the stories we’re told from our own personal perspectives. This does not disrespect the original work, but enhances it and pays tribute to it by honing in on the most essential themes and ideas to recognize their universal relevance. In the instance of The Winter’s Tale there are strong issues of friendship, jealousy, abandonment, regret, tragedy, revenge and (possibly) forgiveness. In “The Gap of Time” Winterson encapsulates the essence of Shakespeare’s drama by creating a novel which is itself poetic, bawdy, inventive and highly entertaining. I loved this tremendous novel. I’m looking forward to reading more of the forthcoming novels in the Hogarth Shakespeare series from tremendous authors such as Anne Tyler, Howard Jacobson, Gillian Flynn, Margaret Atwood and Edward St Aubyn.
I’ve teamed up with Vintage to offer you the chance at winning a signed copy of “The Gap of Time” right now. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post to enter to win. If you fancy, tell me what Shakespeare play you’d most like to see in novel form – but it’s not necessary. Just let me know your contact details (email or twitter handle) so I can contact you if you win. Good luck!