When a writer takes on the challenge of creating a work in the image of the Bard himself, she faces some mighty high hurdles. But the wonderfully talented Jeanette Winterson, OBE, who won the Whitbread Award for her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, more than rises to the occasion with this engrossing retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. With The Gap of Time (Hogarth, $25), Winterson lets Shakespeare’s characters loose in the modern world and spins them into a tumble of events that leads to the sundering of a deep friendship and marriage, and splinters the lives of three families. But the tale also includes a lost-and-found child who is destined to reunite them all. Winterson’s novel inaugurates Hogarth Press’s new series of contemporary retellings of Shakespeare’s works, and if this volume is an indication of what’s to come, the project will be a great success. Winterson layers her story in tight, controlled prose and we follow each character with an unflagging urgency right to the end—when the various plotlines come together with a satisfying crash. The Gap of Time is simply a delight.
The year is 1926, and the students at St. Stephen’s Academy, a boys’ boarding school in the north of England, are subject to the many cruelties of the English Public School system of the time: caning, the “fag” system, whereby younger boys serve older ones and suffer their abuse, and rugby. But before you think victimization à la David Copperfield, meet seventeen-year-old Morgan Wilberforce, the protagonist of H.S. Cross’s excellent debut novel, Wilberforce (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27). Though he mourns the recent death of his mother, suffers abuse from his “fagmaster,” has unrequited yearnings for a boy a year ahead of him, and earns the dislike and suspicion of the headmaster and many of his teachers, Morgan gives as good as he gets. When we meet him, he has injured his shoulder by hurling himself at Spaulding, the object of his affections, during a rugby match, and the drama builds from there. The school is in turmoil following a rebellion of the younger boys, and even the Masters struggle to keep their own emotions at bay while trying to maintain control of the school. In Wilberforce, H.S. Cross has created a world in which the raw pain and pleasure of adolescence combine to heightened, highly charged, and sometimes hilarious effect.