by Jeanette Winterson
This book was recommended to me by an assistant in Waterstones in Cheltenham. I don’t often go into this bookshop, and on this occasion I was browsing and ‘tut-tutting’ at the Christmas frippery on sale. I must have given a sigh, because the young assistant came over to ask if I would like any help. “No – I’m just hoping no one buys me any of this stuff for Christmas!” That sounded rather bad, so I tried to make up for it but saying that I was sure they were nice things, and some people would appreciate them. I still felt I had been rather rude. I noticed the girl and her colleague making a stack of copies of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins on top of a bookcase. “That’s a fantastic book”, I said. The assistant seemed interested, as I enthused about this book and encouraged her to read it. A moment later she brought me a copy of the book that is the subject of this review. Of course I bought it there and then.
The story is that of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a play I know quite well, having studied it for A level. It is a fairly silly story, and I was intrigued to see how a present-day writer, faced with this plot, could come up with a convincing storyline. The characters are recognisable from Shakespeare’s play, and indeed their names are either identical (Perdita) or easily defined (Zel for Florizel, Xeno for Polixenes, Leo for Leontes, Mimi for Hermione, Shep and Clo for Shepherd and Clown).
The story is set in a somewhat dystopian version of the present day, where unwanted babies can be left in a ‘baby-hatch’ attached to a hospital. This device handles the issue of Perdita’s abandonment and subsequent rescue quite neatly. The characters of Pauline and Leo are very well defined: Leo the successful businessman who has a falling-out with his long-time partner and childhood friend, Xeno, when he becomes irrationally jealous of a suspected relationship between Xeno and Mimi. Pauline the long-term PA cum advisor, who takes in the abandoned Mimi and tried to get Leo to see reason. Leo and entourage live in some style what can be assumed to be London. Nobo (New Bohemia) is another unstated place which the reader gradually learns is probably somewhere in the USA. The fate of Tony Gonzales (aka Antigonus) is not to “exit, pursued by a bear”, but to die in a road accident which is unwittingly witnessed by Shep and his sone Clo, who also remove and subsequently raise the baby from the baby-hatch.
Even the roguish Autolycus appears in this story – as a used car dealer (what else?). And his character, who pops up everywhere and is always on the lookout to perpetrate a con, is at the same time somewhat endearing.
As in Shakespeare’s play – one of his last – there is a happy ending, and a strong feeling of reconciliation and forgiveness.
In summary: this is a well-written book that was enjoyable to read, if not memorable. I have not read Jeanette Winterson’s best-known book and the one that made her name, Oranges are not the only fruit. But perhaps I will try that at some stage.