2016 marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and to celebrate his legacy the Hogarth Press commissioned novelists to reinvent Shakespeare’s plays for the modern reader.
Jeanette Winterson tackles The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s stranger plays, in The Gap of Time. The original play revolves around a jealous king disowning his daughter (he believes she belongs to his childhood friend) and condemning her to death. The child survives, is raised by an adoptive family, and later reunites with her birth family.
Winterson possesses true talent and has written exceptional books, but The Gap of Time is a mess. Its fundamental problem is inherent in its premise. Shakespeare’s unrealistic plot, which hinges on bizarre coincidences, undermines Winterson’s otherwise conventional approach to the material.
Winterson thus has to perform strange surgery. The novel begins with a dystopian science-fiction element — a “BabyHatch” where people abandon babies — the presence of which the culture more or less accepts. Until, of course, they don’t — because the BabyHatch has served its plot purpose — and we are back in a world without BabyHatches.
Winterson turns Shakespeare’s King Leontes into the capitalist Leo, stopping just short of the expected stereotype. A stereotype would be better, in fact, because the absurdity of Leo’s motivations and actions would then have some sensible literary context. When we are cued to expect a character with psychological complexity, then are forced to settle for feigned depth because this character must make senseless decisions to serve the plot, it rankles.
Winterson’s strengths lie elsewhere. The opening chapter, in which Shep adopts Perdita, is outstanding. It promises, in Shep, a fascinating figure whose momentous decision to rescue the baby establishes a strange network of relationships that go beyond anything he could imagine. Shep then disappears from the book, cast to the plot’s sidelines, and on his few returns to its stage is reduced to a caricature.
Strangely, the most poorly developed character of the novel is the adopted Perdita. Although Winterson was herself adopted, she is unable to offer any insight into Perdita’s character beyond basic clichés. Instead, Winterson retreats towards other, equally uninteresting but more active figures, in order to advance the story.
Characters move through one chapter in gritty realism, then become cartoons in the next chapter. Sections open with statements like “Perdita and Zel had come to London.” Yes, it mimics theatrical scene-setting, but in a novel nothing is more boring than such bland exposition. The prose is often amateurish and overwrought, as when Leo’s “eyes were dark with the unsaid.”
The great weakness of Winterson’s novel is her inability to dance with Shakespeare — she tries to move between tragedy and comedy, but is not willing to push the novel into an experimental fantasy space.
Until, suddenly, at the very end, she does — but only for a few tacked-on pages. If Winterson had been willing to experiment earlier, and throughout, then a lot of what she attempts might work.
The most painful moments of The Gap of Time come when Winterson enters faux-experimentation mode, and draws our attention to the manufacture of her plot. Sometimes in apology, like when characters wonder at the coincidences or clichés. At other times, in ways meant to be clever that just feel condescending.
“There’s an old saying,” notes one character, “What’s past help should be past grief.”
“That’s Shakespeare,” replies another.
It’s more like Shakespeare for Dummies. Winterson is an otherwise excellent author, and The Gap of Time is beneath her.