Maximum Shelf: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on July 22, 2015.


gap of timeThe Hogarth Shakespeare project undertakes to reinvent the Bard’s classic works in novel form; the first installment is The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. In Shakespeare’s original, the kings of Sicilia and Bohemia are great friends until one accuses the other of sleeping with his wife. The jealous Leontes plots to murder his friend Polixenes, but misses his chance and instead takes out his rage on his pregnant wife, the queen Hermione. By the time his suspicions are proved false, he has lost both his son and his wife, and the baby girl Hermione gives birth to has disappeared. Leontes ordered the baby taken into the wilderness and abandoned, but the man he assigned this task died in the process, so the baby’s fate is unknown. Sixteen years later, a romance between Polixenes’s son and a beautiful, mysterious shepherd’s daughter may offer redemption and even a second chance.

The Gap of Time is set dually in modern London, just following the 2008 economic crisis, and the fictional American city of New Bohemia. Londoners Leo and Xeno were childhood friends and, for a time, lovers; as adults, despite very different values, the bohemian Xeno and the materialistic Leo have become business partners in Sicilia, a high-tech gaming company. Leo’s wife, MiMi, son, Milo, and his uber-capable assistant, Pauline, round out a highly functional, loving family of sorts, until Leo becomes obsessed with the idea that MiMi and Xeno are sleeping together. Leo reacts violently, and loses his son and wife. When he tries to ship MiMi’s baby daughter overseas to Xeno, whom he wrongly believes to be her father, the little girl goes missing.

In New Bohemia, Shep and his son, Clo, who run a piano bar, come across a carjacking too late to save its victim, after which Shep is able to pull a baby out of the nearby hospital’s BabyHatch, a high-tech receptacle for abandoned infants. He is convinced this child is a gift meant for him, to help him heal after his wife’s death, and raises the girl as his own. Her name, according to papers found with her, is Perdita. He could never conceal from her that she is adopted: Perdita is white, while Shep and Clo are black; but she grows up in a home filled with love and music, never doubting that she is wanted. As in the original, 16 years will pass before Perdita encounters a romantic interest who, though equally ignorant of their connected past, will lead to her learning about her origins.

A very brief recap of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of the book informs the reader, so that no knowledge of the original is necessary to follow or enjoy this retelling. Indeed, The Gap of Time will please readers who have never given Shakespeare a second glance, as well as his committed fans. Winterson has fashioned the ideal remake: paying respect to the original and faithfully following many plot points, as well as the general spirit, she simultaneously builds upon it, not only making Shakespeare’s work accessible to modern minds but providing a freshly felt and relevant emotional experience.

Shakespeare’s sympathetic and intriguing plot involving several twists and changes of heart plays well with Winterson’s nuanced tone, while her characters are more multi-faceted than the originals. Leo is a deeply flawed man who nonetheless attracts the reader; Xeno is magnetic, beautiful and sensual; and MiMi is a woman of more complex feelings than the dignity Shakespeare gives Hermione. The next generation, Perdita and Zel, Xeno’s son, are appealing, with passions and interests of their own. It is Shep and Clo, though, Shakespeare’s nameless Shepherd and Clown, who get the most reworking, and to great advantage.

Most of The Gap of Time takes place in London and New Bohemia, but also visits Paris, the Seine and, of course, the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. As realistic as these settings are, it is the gaming world invented by Leo and Xeno that is most imaginative and vibrant. Leo is obsessed with the scene in Superman: The Movie where Superman zips round the world and turns back time to save Lois Lane. Their game is creative, vividly rendered and evocative of Xeno’s disappointment in what his life has become, as well as Leo’s preoccupation with the idea of time’s malleability. It is a game filled with angels of death, and it is called The Gap of Time.

As the title indicates, Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale plays with the concept of time even more than the original did, asking questions about what is changeable about our pasts and our futures. Leo wishes he could take back his madness and its consequences; Xeno wishes he’d handled it differently. This is a stirring tale filled with waste, simple mistakes and regrets. But as in the original, it also offers hope, young love and the possibility of new beginnings. In an unusual twist, Winterson herself steps forward in the final pages to speak in the first person about what she hopes for from this story–and then she steps back to allow her characters to finish it.


Rating: 7 feathers.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

A modern retelling of Strangers on a Train that is every bit as chilling as the original, with new twists.

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In The Kind Worth Killing, a masterful modern reworking of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Peter Swanson (The Girl with a Clock for a Heart) introduces his two protagonists, Ted Severson and Lily Kintner, on an airplane. Ted is a wealthy, successful businessman who discovered that his beautiful bohemian artist wife is cheating on him with the contractor building their new dream home. Lily is a woman with a difficult past–some experience of unhappy families, cheating and murder. Playing a game of truth after several drinks and the full telling of his tale, Ted casually admits, “What I really want to do is kill her.” And that makes sense to Lily: “Everyone dies. What difference does it make if a few bad apples get pushed along a little sooner….”

The resulting intrigues follow Highsmith’s outstanding original in atmosphere and spirit more than in specific details, which is a fine choice, because the new plot lines showcase suspenseful twists and turns, expert pacing and a breathless race to a surprise ending. Thus Swanson brings the best elements of Strangers on a Train–compelling but increasingly worrisome characters, the momentum of a chance meeting–to a fresh new setting, split between the Boston metro area and the rugged coast of Maine. Even readers unfamiliar with Highsmith will be enchanted by this captivating, powerful thriller about sex, deception, secrets, revenge, the strange things we get ourselves wrapped up in, and the magnetic pull of the past.


This review originally ran in the February 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 martinis.

Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

An enthralling, time-traveling version of Alice, in dual wonderlands of 20th-century Hollywood.

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Originally published in 1982, Screenplay by MacDonald Harris (The Balloonist) exhibits remarkable sleight of hand with two parallel versions of Los Angeles. Alys was raised in the late 20th century by fabulously wealthy, unconventional parents and orphaned at age 18. With no personal connections and unlimited money to burn, he amuses himself with unusual old books and music and soulless sexual liaisons. An odd old man shows up at his doorstep and requests to rent a room–though no room has been advertised. He introduces himself as Nesselrode, a film producer, and says he can get Alys into pictures.

Soon Alys’s tenuous link to modern 1980s L.A. falters as he steps through a screen into black-and-white 1920s Hollywood with Nesselrode as a surly, time-obsessed guide. In this alternate world, he falls in love with a beautiful starlet, but can they make a life together in her time? Or in his?

In addition to the unmistakable overarching reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harris’s novel recalls the moral questions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Alys himself could have stepped from the pages of The Great Gatsby. Even with such classics for comparison, Screenplay is a masterpiece of darkly playful cunning. Harris’s evocative prose, in Alys’s disturbingly clinical, coldly self-indulgent first-person narrative, is both intoxicating and disquieting; the altered reality here is more sinister and sensual, even erotic, than in Carroll’s Wonderland. The tension in this memorable and singular dreamscape builds with perfect pacing to an ending that raises more questions than it answers.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 toasters.

book beginnings on Friday: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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Be excited about this one: a modern retelling of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and it is excellent! It begins:

“Hello, there,” she said.

I looked at the pale, freckled hand on the back of the empty bar seat next to me in the business class lounge at Heathrow Airport, then up into the stranger’s face.

“Do I know you?” I asked.

And there we have it. A plane replaces a train; and our protagonists are a man and a woman rather than two men. Let the fun begin.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I read this book in a day, rapt and tearful and awed. Madeline Miller, I love you. Write more, please.

I expect that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the Trojan War, even if you never read the Iliad, yes? The Greeks sail to Troy in pursuit of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships” (that’s these ships!), the most beautiful woman in the world, stolen from her king-husband Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris. They fight at the gates of Troy for ten years before Odysseus’s characteristically clever notion of the big wooden horse (the Trojan horse of idiom) wins the war for the Greeks. Achilles is a hero of the war, on the Greeks’ side. He had been sitting the war out in protest against an offense to his pride when his close friend (and, most scholars agree, lover) Patroclus goes into battle and is killed. In the opening scene of the Iliad, Achilles is mad with grief and rage, about to rush into battle, kill Hector, and be killed by Paris.

That’s the background. Miller, a scholar of ancient languages (including Greek) and theatre has written a novel from Patroclus’s point of view. This gave her quite a bit of leeway, since Patroclus is not given much coverage in Homer or in ancient myth generally; she got to do what she wanted with him. Here, we see him grow up from a boy: he was a disappointment to his father, then was exiled in dishonor and sent away to be fostered in another kingdom, where Achilles is the prince and heir. The two boys form a decidedly unlikely friendship, with Patroclus the dishonored and weak following in the footsteps of Achilles, whose future is prophesied to be something enormous: he will be Aristos Achaion, the greatest of the Greeks.

Patroclus joins Achilles in his studies and their bond grows closer until they become lovers. They are not eager to join the Greeks and sail to Troy to fight for another king’s wife, but circumstances (and Odysseus, the crafty one) conspire to see them off. From there, you can revisit my synopsis of the Iliad, above – except that we keep Patroclus’s perspective, which actually made the Trojan War that I thought I knew so well spring fresh from the page.

And that is one of the several strengths of this book: that an ancient myth that is familiar to many readers, like me, becomes so real, new, crisp & juicy in Miller’s hands. It definitely made me want to go back and reread the Iliad, as well as other cited works. (Check out the Character Glossary, whether you think you need it or not, for background as well as mentions of other books you’ll want to go find.) The myth of the Trojan War comes alive with Patroclus as it hasn’t before.

Another great strength is the emotional impact Miller achieves. This book is moving, sweet, heartfelt, powerful, in its tragedies as in its loving moments – and the tragedies are plentiful. There is visceral wrath in Achilles’s mother Thetis and her hatred of all mortals and Patroclus in particular; that emotion comes through just as strongly as the love that makes Patroclus put aside jealousy and envy, makes him put Achilles’s needs before his own. I noticed that the first-person voice of Patroclus rarely uses the name Achilles, but just refers to his lover as “he” – thus emphasizing the extent to which Achilles is the center of his world.

As I said at the start of this review, I want more of this! It’s so well done. If you’re taking requests, Ms. Miller, I would like to read a book about what happened to the happy family of Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus following the conclusion of the Odyssey: how does Odysseus manage to gracefully step down from power and transfer to Telemachus without sacrificing any of his machismo? Reading The Song of Achilles raised this question for me – how a king could step down and preserve his dignity and quality of life. I wonder, too, whether Penelope ever gets grumpy about all the philandering Odysseus did along his homeward journey, while she was standing strong against the suitors.

In a nutshell, this retelling of the Trojan War and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is lovely, loving, sweet and deeply emotional; it preserves the grand, sweeping scale and feeling of humanity and drama in the original, but brings it freshly alive in an appealingly different format. The Song of Achilles made me sigh and think and cry, and I wanted more when it was all gone. This may very well be the best book I’ve read in 2012.


Rating: a rare 10 loving caresses.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

Head’s up, friends: expect a wildly raving review of The Song of Achilles in the next few days. I am mad for this book. I’ve chosen a teaser for you today that I especially enjoyed.

This was no slouchy prince of wine halls and debauchery, as Easterners were said to be. This was a man who moved like the gods were watching; every gesture he made was upright and correct. There was no one else it could be but Hector.

I reread this passage a few times, it made me so happy. Run out and get you a copy.

What are you reading this week?

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