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Jeanette Winterson Rewrites 'The Winter's Tale'

06/11/2015 18:01 GMT | Updated 05/11/2016 09:12 GMT

The Gap Of Time is Jeanette Winterson's 'cover version' of The Winter's Tale. In sympathy with Shakespeare's approach to source material, she gives it a considerable makeover.

The Winter's Tale boasts one of Shakespeare's more convoluted plots. It is also one of his so called 'problem plays,' as it unfolds as a tragedy but doesn't end as one.

King Leontes, having hounded his wife to death, is presented with a statue of her. He kisses it and it comes to life. This is 'the gap of time,' a phrase that occurs twice in the play. For Jeanette Winterson, the gap of time is the promise of redemption - a theme that preoccupied Shakespeare in his later work.

In her cover version, the action takes place between London and New Bohemia, a fictional city in America. Leontes has become Leo, a hedge-fund manager. His wife is a glamorous French chanteuse. She is having an affair with his best friend, Xeno. Like his counterpart in the play, he succumbs to fits of psychotic jealousy. He has a camera installed in their bedroom, where he catches her in the act with Xeno. He finds himself jerking off over the footage.

This is a tangled web indeed, and Winterson unravels it with surgical precision.

She has often grappled with dark subject matter in her novels, but she never succumbs to nihilism. As in Shakespeare's comedies, her lovers may be torn apart and put through terrible ordeals, but they are ultimately reunited and transformed. For Jeanette Winterson, love can be an 'alternative reality.' Although she is realistic about its drawbacks: 'You meet someone and can't wait to get your clothes off. A year later you're fighting about the dry cleaning.'

The characters stalk the streets of Paris, liaising with prostitutes one minute, rhapsodising about Gnosticism the next. There are anti-austerity marches in London, and meditations on the nature of story-telling. Winterson is capable of making rapid traditions between different worlds. Time is a bit player in this novel, and there is a sense that everything is connected; the space between different places and eras is porous.

As Winterson was adopted at birth, she has always been fascinated by abandoned babies. They pop up - in various guises - in nearly all of her novels. The Gap Of Time begins with the discovery of one. She has said that being adopted is like picking up a book, only to discover that the first few pages are missing.

She has done a series of literary cover versions over the course of her career, retelling the stories of Hercules, The Twelve Dancing Princess and Tristan and Isolde. Shakespeare even made a cameo appearance in her last novel.

Her latest offering is full of unlikely coincidences, like The Winter's Tale. But all of the action takes place in a recognisably modern world, and the dialogue is relatively believable. This is a departure from her previous work, which might feature a story set in an internet chatroom, that then moves through time to sixteenth century Holland, where characters speak in an epigrammatic style and have sex with tulips. (That's in The Powerbook, if you were wondering.)

The Gap Of Time is her first full length adult novel since 2007. It may be the most consistent novel she's written since her famous debut, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Winterson has established herself as one of the most celebrated writers in the English speaking world. Although she has been dogged by newspaper stories of her alleged temper tantrums, and accusations of pomposity. This was in her so called 'difficult middle period.'

The 2012 publication of her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? was reminder of her genius as a writer.

Her novels have contained floating cities, giant dog women, blind lighthouse keepers, robots with latex gloves, interplanetary travel, exorcisms, golden nosed donkeys and witchcraft.

Raised by pentecostal evangelists, she spent much of her youth travelling around the North-West with a gospel tent, attempting to convert the heathen. Her mother made her memorise the bible. Although she ran off with another girl and became a decadent novelist, she remains in many way a preacher. She writes in a bold, declamatory style - the cadences of the King James Bible are present in her work. As is the ever present hope of redemption. It's something her characters find in The Gap Of Time.

Winterson believes that the imagination can change the world - and that 'whatever is lost will be found.' We live in deeply cynical times. Her views are rather unfashionable. But reading Jeanette Winterson takes you to a place where words have power, and are capable of transforming people's lives.