Home > books > “sexing the cherry” by jeanette winterson

“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.

Categories: books
  1. August 26, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    It doesn’t sound like my kind of read but seeing as the library has a copy and I hate to miss anything new-to-me especially if it’s free, I have placed it on reserve. I’ll let you know if I manage to get through it.

  2. jean pierre
    August 27, 2007 at 10:13 am

    yeah, at times its not the easiest of books to read, but it would be interesting to see what you make of it.

    thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  3. August 27, 2007 at 11:05 am

    I didn’t read the second part of your review to avoid the spoilers, but I read the first halt and the last paragraph, and I am intrigued, especially by the magic realism aspect. Jeanette Winterson is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read, so maybe this would be a good place to start.

  4. August 27, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    JP, I think you’re tempting me to re-read “Sexing the Cherry”. I reread at least one of her books every year, but not “Sexing the Cherry.”

    I just finished the ARC for her new book, “The Stone Gods” and she has utilised some of the techniques she employed in “Sexing”

    One of the reasons I had so much trouble with “Sexing” was all the little narratives imbedded within the larger storyline of the Dog Woman and Jordan. I keep trying to make sense of them, how the stories within the Story relate to each other. I think I drove myself crazy.

    But the dual realities – it’s almost like they are incarnations of their earlier selves with their unresolved issues.

    When I first read that “Sexing” was a riff on Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, I tried to read the poem as a primer to understanding “Sexing.” These lines, I felt, describes the feel of “Sexing” most eloquently:

    “Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past.
    If all time is eternally present
    All time is unredeemable.
    What might have been is an abstractin
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.
    Footfalls echo in the memory
    Down the passage which we did not take
    Towards the door we never opened”
    ~ ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets

    Maybe it’s about possibilities, and how time and love re-enact itself in different ways. Time overlaps, swims into each other. Jordan – the name of a river, but all river is in flux, and it all comes together in a greater cosmic cycle.

    Sometimes I imagine “Sexing the Cherry” as a string of pearls, all the multiple stories/naaratives the beads – all tied together loosely through a Super-Narrative of the Dog Woman and Jordan. And like all loops, we come back to the beginning, from another angle. “Sexing the Cherry” is a patchwork of all the different narratives. Maybe it’s just meant to be enjoyed in its episodic form. Hence, my take: Step back, enjoy the language.

    If I don’t make sense, don’t worry. I have not been able to fully make sense of “Sexing the Cherry” yet.

    Nymeth: If you’re more interested in Winterson’s Magical Realism, maybe “The Passion” is a better novel to start. “The Passion” pretends to be a historicl novel set in Napoleanic times, but later it transports the narrative to Venice, a city of mirrors and shadows. It also has a woman who loses her heart to her lover (Really. It’s still beating and kept in a jar.)

  5. jean pierre
    August 28, 2007 at 8:32 am

    yeah, winterson is intriguing… i’d go with dark orpheus’ suggestion of trying “the passion”. as she says (dark orpheus, not winterson) “sexing the cherry” is a rather problematic novel, and it may be better to try something else first…

    i’d certainly be interested to see what you make of it this time around. in fact, talking about it on our blogs is making me want to give it another go! 🙂

    it sounds like you put a lot of work into this book, trying to make sense of all the little narrative threads in the book! what you say about the dual realities and the unresolved issues is very interesting… food for thought. i really like how she leaves those identities open for interpretation – allowing one can theorise about them.

    i must say, that passage from the “four quartets” perfectly captures the essence of the novel. its almost like a summary! very cool – thanks for sharing it.

    i think what you say here is quite profound:
    “Maybe it’s about possibilities, and how time and love re-enact itself in different ways. Time overlaps, swims into each other. Jordan – the name of a river, but all river is in flux, and it all comes together in a greater cosmic cycle.” you’ve hit the nail on the head there – which is no mean feat with a novel with a meaning as elusive as this one. you’ve perfectly described whats going on in “sexing the cherry”.

    and i see your analogy about the string of pearls. sexing is certainly incredibly episodic and your advice of just stepping back and enjoying it for its language is probably best. if i do read it again, it’ll be like that, in little installments.

  6. August 28, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    I skipped most of your review, cause I think I’m going to want to read this!! Gotta say, the name is a killer !

  7. jean pierre
    August 28, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    it is a cool title 🙂 it really captures one’s imagination…

  8. August 28, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Sounds fascinating and weird…a very good combination! Love the cover image!

  9. August 29, 2007 at 6:42 am

    Yes, cool title indeed, and yet, you see more of the pineapple than the cherry.

  10. jean pierre
    August 29, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    thats exactly what it was like reading it, fascinating and weird…! 🙂 very cool cover.

    yeah, why do you think she calls it that?

  11. August 30, 2007 at 1:24 am

    First, it does titillate: Ooh-la-la, Sexing the Cherry!

    I’m guessing she’s using the sexualized symbolism of cherries, the plucking of cherries to signify the deflowering process, and “sexing” implies a cross-pollination, or a gender identification, or just to have sex with. Very layers connotation.

    Just found this on Winterson’s own website, about Sexing the Cherry:

    “It is a savage love, an unorthodox love, it is family life carried to the grotesque, but it is not a parody or a negative. The boisterous surrealism of their bond is in the writing itself. By writing the familiar into the strange, by wording the unlovely into words-as-jewels, what is outcast can be brought home. I have also thought of myself as an outcast, but I have made myself a territory by writing it. Sexing the Cherry is a cross-time novel in the same way that The Passion is cross-gender. The narrative moves through time, but also operates outside it. At the centre of the book are the stories of the Twelve Dancing Princess, each only a page long, written as a kind of fugue. The stories aren’t just parachuted in there, they are integral to the whole, in just the same way that the Percival stories are integral to Oranges. That is, they tell us something we need to know to interpret the book.”

  12. jean pierre
    August 30, 2007 at 6:36 am

    aah… very cool.

    that makes sense about the 12 dancing princesses. when one reads it one feels its significant, even if one can’t exactly put one’s finger on why. it was certainly my favourite part of the book!

    her description of the bond between the two characters requires some unpacking, but is highly informative.

    thanks dark orpheus!

    as for the title, all that you say is apparant to me, but how does that connect with the narrative itself?

  13. September 2, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Just finished it. Total enjoyment from page one.

    Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  14. September 2, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    Hope you don’t mind but I put up a link to this book and reviews on my blog. Spreading the word on a good book.

  15. jean pierre
    September 3, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    ah, elizabeth, i’m so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

    and i don’t mind you linking to this page at all.

  16. Dan
    May 7, 2008 at 4:35 am

    I didn’t like it 😦 But I did enjoy everyone’s post, especially the bit about the Four Quartets 😀

  17. February 2, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I know this is a really old post topic to come back to – but The Slaves of Golconda are discussing Sexing the Cherry, and “Sexing the Cherry” is might just be a metaphor for grafting. Stefanie elaborates on it more: http://somanybooksblog.com/2009/01/31/sexing-the-cherry/

    Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s possible. and it ties in with the narrative well enough.

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