“sexing the cherry” by jeanette winterson
this review will contain spoilers – i usually don’t include spoilers, but i feel with this book its very hard to review it without addressing what happens in the latter half of the book.
on the surface of it, the novel is about an enormous (and i do mean enormous, her skirt is big enough to be a ship’s sail) and grotesque woman and her son living in 17th century england. the novel is set in an alternate history and has a lot of elements of magical realism, and is written somewhat in a stream of consciousness style.
it alternates between the first person narratives of the enormous woman and her son, jordan. the woman’s narrative deals with the way she interacts with and is perceived by her community. jordan’s narrative is mainly to do with his search – he is a restless character and is always searching for something, and as such often goes on long sea voyages.
the two narratives read like ramblings, and for a long time didn’t particularly lead anywhere. this is something i had a bit of a problem with. ramblings are difficult to pull off because obviously what usually drives a novel is a plot. ramblings can work if the characters are interesting or particularly well-written, or if one really enjoys the writer’s use of language. i found the woman interesting, but not enough to sustain my interest in the novel; jordan i found quite boring – he was an oddly absent narrator. he was there, but he never really let the reader in, it felt. the same with the language – i enjoyed it, but it couldn’t carry the novel for me.
when this happens then the episodic nature of the narrative becomes even harder to handle – each chapter being an odd diary entry where we see what jordan or the giant get up to and learn their views on society and their philosophies on life. at first this was interesting, but after a few pages it became tiring. i kept on starting each chapter thinking “where is this heading?”
even though the book is short (only 144 pages) it is still very dense – so it took me quite a while to get through it. it doesn’t help that i’m a slow reader, and i think now that perhaps i should’ve just read this in little installments. a chapter every day or so, on the loo or something (they’re all very short) and not read it as a book (if you know what i mean). then i wouldn’t have imposed a narrative upon it and enjoyed it purely for its language, as dark orpheus recommends.
another reason why i struggled, is because i found the characters rather repulsive. i found it quite fun when the giant woman killed people and stuff, but underlying that is a deep melancholy and… something else. i don’t know. she’s a very coarse character. but… actually sympathetic, if truth be told. i think it was the tone of the novel (and her narrative) more. it was very heavy and negative. at one stage we have the plague and then the great fire of london and these aren’t jolly moments. winterson’s insight on these disasters is very deep, though, and as depressing as it is, her depiction of the great fire is one of the best parts of the book.
all that i’ve discussed up until now relates to the first 2/3ds of the book – in the last third, the book massively picked up. on jordan’s travels he meets the 12 dancing princesses and learns of this world where people are flying about (they used to walk around on ropes connecting the houses and then, later, just started flying – i loved that place!) he chats to them a bit here and there, but by page 80 theres a stretch where each princess tells her story. most of them are about escaping their husbands that were enforced upon them.
suddenly there was linear narrative and i loved it! i loved each princess’ little story and i began to see what winterson’s reputation was based on (well, from my perspective anyway). the only story we don’t read is the story of the 12th princess – she is nowhere to be found. naturally jordan decides to go and find her, and eventually we learn her story.
then, after that, something wacky and very cool happens. suddenly the setting shifts to the modern day (the late 1980s) and we have two new protagonists. one is a woman who is an environmental protestor, the other is nicolas jordan, a boy who has always loved boats and heroes, and dreams of one day being a hero and sailing the seas.
immediately we see a parallel between these two new characters and the ones set in 17th century england. they are more than just similar, however, and are clearly different incarnations of the same people. this is made clear when the protester says that she is going mad and hallucinates that she is a grotesque, gigantic woman living in the past. when this stuff started happening i was loving this book – i like this kind of thing, and it made sense of what had been happening. as cool as this was, though, i personally feel it took way too long for the connection to be made between past and present.
neverheless, winterson’s treatment of this dual existence thing is very good. its subtle. at one stage you think that the present day characters had just been fantastising and have invented their past incarnations, but winterson avoids that simplification. we aren’t given a clear explanation as to what their connection is and we have to, in the end, accept that they are simply two versions of the same people. i really liked this – how she challenges our concepts of time and identity. this is, of course, not a new concept, but it is done so well here that it is one of the very few times that i found myself really believing in the concept.
a lot of that is down to how in-touch the novel is with reality. when it is in the past, even though it is magical realism, winterson captures the essence of 17th century london. in the present, she perfectly captures the cynicism of the 80s. i found her rendition of the present very depressing, but it was an impression that i could definitely identify with.
at the end i was rather happy with the novel, even though i wished that the connection had been made earlier. there were lots of bits that i really enjoyed, especially the tales of the 12 dancing princesses – with these tales winterson gave her imagination free reign and they really were a joy to read. i loved the stuff with the future versions of the protagonists and found that part of the book rather profound.
i’d definitely recommend this book, particularly to those of you who are quick readers, and especially since you’ll know that while it rambles, it does eventually lead somewhere. the last third of the novel is certainly worth the wait.