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Autumn fiction highlights

The pick of the new fiction you should be reading this season.

Umbrella by Will Self
Bloomsbury, 16 August
Umbrella, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, spans the 20th century and explores the nightmarish qualities of its technological revolutions. The psychiatrist Zack Busner encounters Audrey Dearth, who has been confined to a mental asylum after falling victim to the encephalitis lethargica epidemic at the end of the First World War.

Philida by André Brink
Harvill Secker, 2 August
Also longlisted is Philida by the South African novelist André Brink. A historical novel set in 1832 in the Cape, it delves into the relationship between the slave Philida and her white master’s son, François, who has reneged on his promise to free her.

NW by Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 6 September
Zadie Smith returns to north-west London, her birthplace and the inspiration for White Teeth. In her first novel in seven years, Smith focuses on the lives of four former friends from the Caldwell housing estate, exploring adulthood, class and the contemporary urban landscape.

The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling
Little, Brown, 27 September
The ceaseless march of the J K Rowling brand continues with her first novel for adults, a blackly comic work that is no doubt destined for bestselling status. Set in the idyllic English town of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy looks beyond the facade to find its inhabitants caught in perpetual conflict.

Risk by C K Stead
MacLehose Press, 27 September
In C K Stead’s latest novel, the New Zealander Sam Nola arrives in London in 2003, with the case for intervention in Iraq swiftly gathering momentum on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
And Other Stories, 1 October
Helen DeWitt follows her debut novel, The Last Samurai, with a sharp, satirical take on contemporary office life and the masculinity of corporate culture.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes
Granta, 11 October
A M Homes casts an eye on domestic life in the 21st century, piercing the troubled heart of contemporary America.

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk
Faber & Faber, 4 October
The second novel from the Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk. In Cennethisar, a former fishing village, Fatma awaits the visit of her grandchildren – a visit that will draw the family into the troubled politics of Turkey’s struggle for modernity.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Viking, 25 October
Colm Tóibín writes of a Mary still caught in grief years after her son’s crucifixion, in this reimagining of the religious icon’s story. Alone in Ephesus, Mary rejects the idea that her son was the Son of God and has little interest in the authors of the Gospels who regularly visit her.

Havisham by Ronald Frame
Faber & Faber, 1 November
The Scottish novelist Ronald Frame’s tribute to Dickens’s creation is a prequel to Great Expectations. Born into new money, Catherine Havisham is sent to live with the Chadwycks. She discovers sophistication in the elegant pursuits of the rich – but finds herself increasingly vulnerable.

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide