I discovered Jeannette Winterson because a friend recommended The Passion. I went on to The Power Book, and I had a new literary heroine. She writes more poetically than anyone I’ve read in a long time, loves language as completely as her lovers love each other. No one else I’ve read in modern fiction can render the ecstasy of physical/emotional love as vividly. Or the pain of separation and rejection. The Passion, in addition, takes in huge gulps of geography and time as it follows its Napoleonic-age anti hero across Europe to the Russian Steppes and back to Venice. The Power Book does the same with the human heart and psyche as the computer upon which the book is being written becomes a metaphor for the mind and heart of the writer/lover. We are one with creator and the creation as we move through an engrossing plot. Sexing the Cherry, like The Passion, goes back in history for a look at the female heart. Not as engrossing as The Passion, it is nevertheless a literary accomplishment of great merit.
Imagine, then, my astonishment when a friend whose judgement I generally trust even when we don’t necessarily agree, took a course which assigned Written on the Body and pretty much dismissed it. “I wasn’t taken with it,” was her most definitive comment. I hadn’t read the book, but couldn’t imagine how someone who cared about language could wave away any Winterson. Sadly, I think my friend is right.
Written On the Body is a good example of how a writer’s best traits can betray. All the virtuosity of her love descriptions become tedious and repetitive. It’s a little embarrassing sometimes, as if you’re reading a journal instead of a novel, as if there’s no authorial detachment between the feeling and the event and its literary rendering. Too little of that which Joyce describes as taking the dross of human experience and shaping it into art. I hope I can persuade my friend to go to one of the other books for a second opinion. They’re short, after all. And as for myself, I’ll go for some more Winterson, certainly. The Whitbread ain’t the Booker, but it’s a considerable achievement, and I’ve not yet gotten to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.