Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge.
I’ve never seen a performance of or read The Winter’s Tale, so I was glad of the overview Jeanette Winterson provides at the start of The Gap of Time. I could understand why Winterson, who was adopted and raised by strangers attempting to be her parents, would be fascinated by the story of a lost girl taken in and raised by a stranger, and why, given the unhappiness of her own upbringing, she would be fascinated by the story’s happy ending.
It surprised me, then, that Winterson’s cover version (her term) felt so brittle at first. There was a self-consciousness about it. This is only the second work of fiction by Winterson that I’ve read. It felt to me as though she was writing at a slight remove, as though curious herself as to what she might reveal as the story unfolded. Perhaps there was a reticence because this is a work of Shakespeare, after all. These aren’t Winterson’s own characters. And perhaps Winterson’s feeling that Shakespeare’s original is talismanic for her meant that her love for it was overshadowed by a sense of responsibility to reinterpret it well.
It settled into something surreal and edgy. The scenes involving Leo’s paranoia about his wife and best friend made me think of the craziness of Nathan Barley. Everything was hyper, day-glo, cartoon like. It was crudely funny. Winterson left no room for doubt that Leo was a tool of the highest City Boy order.
During the first quarter of the book, its title pops up in different places, as though Winterson is exploring the meaning and potential uses of the phrase, from the concept of being physically present in a moment but simultaneously in a different time and place mentally, to the title of a video game. Winterson also writes herself into the narrative as a reference in a Wikipedia entry. It’s all very postmodern and knowing.
As with Written on the Body, Winterson is at her best when talking about love. Love in all its complexity, the passion, the sensuality, the desire for solitude while also wanting to belong with someone, the jealousy, the remoteness found in one night stands, the stimulation and the anathema. She shows that an alpha male like Leo can feel love just as intensely as someone more sensitive like Xeno. She writes love and how love feels with a depth that is honest and personal.
You meet someone and you can’t wait to get your clothes off. A year later and you’re fighting about the dry-cleaning. The imperfections are built into the design.
It is in the development of the love triangle imagined by an increasingly paranoid Leo that the retelling develops some guts. I was pulled in by the pace of the action and the extreme nature of Leo’s madness. While some of it felt a little soap opera clichéd, it was gripping in the way the best written soap operas can be, an indication that I’d become invested in the characters.
I galloped through the middle section of the book, unable to put it down. I loved Perdita and her adoptive family, there was warmth and humour there. It was when her saccharine sweet, fast developing romance with Zel started that my interest started to wane. And the repeated prejudice against women and gaming irritated me. Xeno, a game developer, has a pet line about women being less interested in gaming because games aren’t designed for them. It really irked me because it felt like a lazy trope. I know plenty of women who are gamers, and they play the same games as men, and enjoy them. They also enjoy reading, shopping, wearing makeup, watching TV, and being normal people doing everyday things. It felt as though Winterson, being from a generation that didn’t grow up with video games (for want of a better term), was projecting her own lack of interest in games onto characters from a later generation to hers. It didn’t ring true and it came across as weirdly preachy. It’s a tiny part of the story, but it niggled me to a ridiculous degree.
The action picks up again in the third section, and the story comes to its conclusion. The end hangs in mid air as Winterson indulges in some personalised literary criticism. It was interesting to me, as someone who doesn’t know the play, but also a little odd that she would end the book in that way. Almost as though she was scared to leave things open, without comment or explanation.
I’m glad I read it, though.