“God doesn’t need to punish us. We can do that for ourselves. That’s why we need forgiveness.”
A man driven crazy by jealousy, a wife accused of adultery and a lost child: this is Jeanette Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. But unlike Othello, The Winter’s Tale allows the for redemption and a chance to right wrongs. Like the original, The Gap of Time is ultimately a book about forgiveness.
The plot: Leo is a wealthy man, living in London, used to getting his way. He is married to a French cabaret singer, MiMi, and they have a nine-year-old son, Milo. Leo has a hedge fund, which specializes in buying and stripping the assets of business, and loading them with debt, making a profit for himself and his stockbrokers.
Leo is convinced that MiMi is having an affair with his best friend, Xeno, and that the child she is carrying is his. In a jealous rage, Leo tries to kill Xeno. Xeno flees. When the baby is born, Leo refuses to acknowledge her as his. He gives her to his gardener Tony with a briefcase full of money, and bribes him to take her to Xeno.
Tony sensing that he is being followed by muggers, hides the baby in a BabyHatch (a place for abandoned babies). She is found by Shep and his son Clo, who take her home and raise her. With the money in the briefcase, they also find a diamond necklace and a piece of sheet music titled Perdita. That’s what they name the baby: the little lost one.
Having got rid of the child, Leo takes Milo and tries to catch a flight to Berlin to escape MiMi. Milo doesn’t want to go and runs away from his father straight into the path of oncoming van.
Leo and MiMi divorce, and she returns to Paris, a shadow of her former self. Leo has to live with his actions that have resulted in the death of his son, the loss of his daughter, his beloved wife and his best friend.
Meanwhile, Perdita grows up happy and loved in New Bohemia, a place that feels like the southern US. Then one day, she throws a birthday party for Shep and invites her boyfriend Zel. Zel’s father turns up too, and secrets that have been long hidden come tumbling out. She decides to go find her biological father and confront him.
I enjoyed this “cover version” as Winterson calls it. Perdita’s two fathers, Shep and Leo, are antitheses of each other: one open and kind, the other self-centred, focused on accumulating money and power. Xeno is an interesting character—sexually ambiguous, he is close to both Leo and MiMi, and won’t allow himself to be dominated by his friend. The friendships are destroyed by the fact that Leo can’t bear to share people he loves with anyone else. It takes the child to heal the wounds caused by the adults.
I liked the way Winterson turned the King Leontes’s empire into the cut-throat world of finance. Some of the coincidences are a little far-fetched, but she is just reflecting Shakespeare, who used them fairly liberally. I’m not complaining—they bring the plot together and allow a resolution.
The writing is lyrical. Part of the joy of this book is rereading some of the passages. There is so much I can quote, but I’ll restrain myself to this:
“And the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And 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.”
 The Winter’s Tale is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Also reviewed on this site: Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, and Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth.