THE GAP OF TIME, by Jeanette Winterson. Hogarth, 288 pp., $25.
Next year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, but he's still very much alive, the latest evidence being the just-launched Hogarth Shakespeare series, through which the likes of Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler are writing novelistic riffs on selected Shakespeare plays.
Jeanette Winterson kicks things off with "The Gap of Time," her wise and wondrous novel covering Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." It's a great opening choice; no Shakespeare play has more to say about what it means to bend time and live again.
In "The Winter's Tale," a maddened King Leontes of Sicilia unjustly accuses his wife (Hermione) and best friend (King Polixenes of Bohemia) of having an affair. The frightened Polixenes flees for his life; a heartbroken Hermione dies shortly after giving birth to a girl (Perdita). Leontes orders "the bastard" be abandoned beyond the borders of his kingdom; she's found and raised by a loving shepherd and his son in Bohemia.
After a 16-year interlude, Shakespeare's play wends toward a magical conclusion in which the chastened Leontes makes up with Polixenes, whose son marries the long-lost Perdita. In one of the most moving scenes in all of Shakespeare, the wronged Hermione comes back to life before our eyes.
Toggling between contemporary London and a "New Bohemia" resembling post-Katrina New Orleans, Winterson follows this basic story; she simultaneously writes a new one.
It may be true, as one of Winterson's characters says late in the novel, that no one would ever believe the literal story memorialized in "The Winter's Tale." But Shakespeare's insights as to why we screw up our lives and whether we can make amends ring as true as ever -- particularly when someone as psychologically astute as Winterson sounds the notes.
They include the many characters in this novel coming from dysfunctional families; in both Shakespeare's play and in this retelling, parents continually disappoint, when they're around at all.
Love-starved offspring are therefore insecure -- and, particularly if they're one of Winterson's men, also likely to fear intimacy. Winterson's leading exemplar is Leo, "a typical Alpha Male" and highflying London financial trader. Leo is both possessive and afraid of intimacy; he has a compulsive need to keep his wife (a French singer) close even as he simultaneously pushes her away.
Leo is consequently convinced she'd rather be elsewhere (he's not entirely wrong). Or with someone else like Xeno, his best friend and a video game designer. The ensuing meltdown, with its destructive accusations, is just a matter of time.
But can time also mend what's been broken? "Time can't unhappen," the narrator says. "But it can be unlost. Can it?"
It's telling that the affirming healers answering "yes" in this novel are usually outsiders, offering markedly different perspectives.
The shepherd, his son and Xeno's son are black. Pauline, Leo's chief adviser, is Jewish. The character who brings baby Perdita to New Bohemia is Mexican. And young Perdita -- along with her mother and Pauline, one of three memorable women here -- is a foundling. As the adopted Winterson reminds us toward novel's end, so is she.
While Shakespeare gives his play's final words to Leontes, in Winterson's novel it's Perdita who voices a concluding coda.
Singing a song of love, Perdita underscores Winterson's message that forgiveness is possible. That cities like New Orleans can rise again. That cultural treasures -- including the Roundhouse in London and the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, both repeatedly invoked here -- can be reborn after they die. And that we can start over, taking a sad song and making it better.