Home and away

The Leper's Companion

Julia Blackburn <em>Jonathan Cape, 216pp, £14.99</em>

This Place You Re

Do things have to happen in fiction? Certainly some kinds of fiction depend on incident. Think of travelogues such as Robinson Crusoe, or personal histories like Great Expectations, where characters develop by manoeuvring through a thicket of action. In other kinds of fiction, incident is less important. Virginia Woolf, for instance, subordinates external events, focusing instead on the internal movement of minds.

At first glance, new books by Julia Blackburn and Kirsty Gunn slip into the Woolfian model, light on dialogue and fat with introspection. In Gunn's story "Everyone is Sleeping" a woman contemplates her deceased parents' house. "The garden where her mother used to walk . . . the rooms where her father kept his books . . . It's only images of her life that inhabit this place now, the perfect painted memories of things she had seen." In The Leper's Companion another woman recovers from madness after she has a vision of angels forming "a ring of protection around her. They encapsulated her in a world of her own where she was no longer burdened by sadness." In Gunn's fiction damaged characters summon up memories and imaginary worlds as a means by which to cope with loss and painful experience.

The unnamed protagonist of Blackburn's novel has been devastated by the loss of a loved one. Her response is to "bang the door shut on this present time" by staying in some "distant country". In retreat, she stumbles on a village where, as it happens, the year is 1410. Invisible to everyone except a leper but able to inhabit people's minds, the woman immerses herself in village life. She feels especially close to Sally, a fisherman's daughter whose husband drowned, and to the well-travelled leper. When the leper, Sally, a priest and a shoemaker's wife decide to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the woman accompanies them.

The Leper's Companion ambitiously aims to invoke an entire medieval world, at times sharply described but on the whole too often vaguely sketched and inhabited by shadowy archetypes identified only by profession (priest, leper, shoemaker). And characters' thoughts tend towards the comically anachronistic - the priest, for instance, who wonders if he "decided to join the priesthood because it enabled him to listen to the confession of sins he would not know how to commit", sounds like a candidate for group therapy. The significance these characters hold for the bereaved woman also remains disappointingly unclear.

If Blackburn's protagonist finds a kind of relief in her imaginary journeys, Gunn's are less fortunate. Her stories are studies in emotional extremism. A son is maddened to violence by his father; a teenager becomes estranged from her friends as she mourns her dead mother; a distraught woman takes her daughters away from her husband and returns to the town where she grew up. The waitress in "Visitor", who wears expensive underwear and sleeps with her customers, begins to question her way of life when she visits the dying aunt who raised her to be a "special kept and secret girl". Between raping girls and skinning animals, the son in "The Meatyard" recalls with sadness his mother's "cool cheek as she leaned over and kissed him goodnight". These people long for an idyllic past, when parents were alive, children were innocent, and a place called home actually existed.

Gunn's prose is bullet-hard and vivid - offal "bought cheap at the butcher's" gleams on a plate; "white crescents in pools of pale gravy, soft pink for lips and tongues". The stench of dead animals permeates "The Meatyard" - "In the heat of the car, coming off the red-painted sides of the car, off the road, the air was the smell of blood, and the money."

Her best stories are snapshots of intense mental activity. In "Visitor" and "The Meatyard" the sense of desperation is palpable and frightening. But the overall effect is less powerful. Like snapshots, these stories are static. Unnamed and unsituated characters are frozen in time and space, their minds and bodies pointlessly oscillating between home and away, past and present. They can't move ahead because they can't imagine another way to live. The enraged son goes back to his father's meatyard. The unhappy wife returns to her claustrophobic childhood village. Each story reads like a repeat of the last one. You read on and on, waiting for something to happen.

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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