Jeanette Winterson is one of those authors I can’t seem to shake off. I’ve read a lot of her work and every novel I encounter is rich and vibrant and wildly different from the last. Her strength is in her uncomplicated yet striking prose and decedent story telling. There are some of her novels that hit the mark for me entirely, others miss it a little but when Winterson does hit the mark she is a formidable force in storytelling. She is always inventive, she grasps existing narratives and twists them into her own design. She has rewritten fairytales, handled queer themes with extraordinary dexterity, and never shies away from the uncomfortable (just a few reasons why I cannot stop reading her work).
This novel, for me, is Winterson at her very best. Her writing is easy and surprising, it’s gripping, economical and in some parts nears the poetic. The narrative itself is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and keeps close pace with the original play while giving it a modern spin that feels contemporary.
Leo (King Leontes within the play) plans to kill his best friend Xeno (Polixenes) because he believes Xeno is sleeping with his wife MiMi (Hermione). MiMi is heavily pregnant and famous within her own right as a successful singer. Leo is a ruthless hedge fund manager who’s accustomed to getting his own way and not being disputed with. He is convinced that MiMi’s second child is not his and is instead Xeno’s. Through no fault of his own Xeno’s intimate friendship with MiMi throws tension over the entire narrative, coupled with ambiguous sexuality that fuels Leo’s rage. Leo attempts to kill Xeno forcing him to flee and then confronts MiMi as she gives birth to their daughter, Perdita, in the midst of some brutal pages. He still refuses to hear reason or sense and instead of accepting the child he bribes his gardener to make his daughter disappear.
But the story doesn’t end there, through a terrible accident Tony is shot by thugs after hiding Perdita in a baby-hatch at the local hospital. Shep and Clo are passing when they see both the concealment and the shooting and Shep takes it upon himself to bring Perdita up himself. Perdita grows into a remarkable young woman, and then is destined to find the truth of her unusual beginnings in the world.
It is rare that I find myself shaken from a novel but the misogynistic rage that faced me from Leo, although fictional, resonated with me in a very powerful way. I have taken a while to consider why this is and I think maybe it lies in how the first half of the novel is intended to make the reader pass judgement on Leo and his actions.
Some of the novel falls out of step with the play but only in a minor way, for example the play has King Leontes degrading and humiliating his wife in a vicious way in front of the Royal Court. Winterson however withholds judgement, expecting that the bedroom she sets Leo to his violence in will provide Courtroom enough for reader to play judge and jury and react much as Shakespeare’s Royal Court: disgusted. Readership is given trust to be silent witness to the entire disintegration of Leo’s obsessive irrationality, which creates an intense read which is never fully convincing as we gain the advantage of also seeing the reality behind Leo’s accusations. We see plutonic intimacy between Xeno and MiMi which Leo demands is sexual infidelity. We see sexual jealousy, we see possessiveness, we see fear, and we see the horror.
This is not to say this novel is like this the entire way through though, as it does ultimately have a happy ending. It is the children of this novel who find the real happy ending, and unlike Othello, Hermione is not murdered and Leo does not die, and after a long winding journey, some sort of forgiveness is found. This is a passionate retelling. Winterson admits that The Winter’s Tale has been a play that she has adored for more than 30 years because:
“It’s a play about a foundling. And I am. It’s a play about forgiveness and a world of possible futures – and how forgiveness and the future are tied together in both directions. Time is reversible.” p.284
This novel has a lot more to unpick than initially meets the eye. The cast of characters are diverse and not all of them are as they appear and there is something very relatable in all of them. I would read this again happily. As I mentioned earlier on, this is Winterson at her very best.