Published by Hogarth 1/6 October 2015
320pp, hardback, £16.99/$25
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Hogarth is publishing ‘cover versions’ of some of the bard’s greatest works under the title, The Hogarth Shakespeare. A number of famous authors, including Tracy Chevalier, Margaret Atwood, Edward St Aubyn, Gillian Flynn, Howard Jacobson and Jo Nesbo, will each retell a Shakespearean play in the form of a novel, in celebration of Shakespeare’s reputation as a re-teller of well-known tales.
First into the breach is Jeanette Winterson who takes on The Winter’s Tale, renaming it The Gap of Time, a quote from the end of the play. It is set in London, Paris and New Bohemia in the present day or perhaps the near future. The author helpfully provides a synopsis of the play and main characters before launching in to her own version of the story which she says has special significance for her. As an adopted child, she empathizes with the abandoned Perdita, and says the play has haunted her for many years.
At first the novel feels clumsy and awkward as Winterson introduces the main characters in their new settings and guises. Leontes becomes Leo, a brutal, bullish man who owns a successful hedge fund company called Sicilia. MiMi (Hermione), married to Leo, is a famous American/French singer who is heavily pregnant with their second child. Xeno (Polixenes), Leo’s childhood friend, lives in New Bohemia and is a computer games genius. Leo becomes convinced that MiMi and Xeno have been having an affair and the child that MiMi is carrying is not his. Xeno’s ambiguous sexuality only serves to ramp up Leo’s fury and he decides to kill him. Leo is as obsessed by the thought of his best friend and wife being together as he is by flashbacks to his teenage affair with Xeno.
Once the characters are secured in their settings, Winterson lets the story take flight while remaining true to the plot of the play. She seems to be having fun; referencing herself at one point and breaking the fourth wall at another. It is a witty interpretation of Shakespeare with King Leontes’ court becoming the money markets of London, and one of the king’s henchmen remade as a used car salesman. The man who rescues the abandoned Perdita is called Shep, in reference to the shepherd who adopts Perdita in the play. This light touch works well, especially with the more unfathomable Shakespearian plot points such as Hermione’s sudden reappearance. The blossoming romance between Perdita and Zel is handled with tenderness that contrasts well with their warring elders.
There is no doubt that familiarity with the play will enhance enjoyment of the novel but the book stands as a droll piece in its own right, too. As a method of enticing readers to pick up Shakespeare’s works or attend a play performance, it has every chance of succeeding.