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A beautifully written book
on 18 August 2014
This is no ordinary book. Jeanette Winterson has such an incredible mastery of the English language that it takes your breath away, and as an aspiring writer it makes me feel that I should throw the towel in right now and stop being such a twat!
The story revolves around the recollections of an ultimately tragic love affair with a woman called Louise. The narrator recounts the unfolding events and how they have compared with those of previous lovers. The narrative is supported by vivid descriptions and musings on the nature of love and relationships (as well as a hundred other things), all deftly condensed into surprisingly few words. There is for example a discussion on the fortunes and misfortunes of marriage, and another on reasons why people fall out of love.
You need an open, tolerant mind to read the book, the explicit sex and colourful language are uncompromising. And although the narrator is ungendered it soon becomes obvious that he/she is a woman; at one point "she" recalls dancing with a previous girlfriend "sealed like a pair of 50s homosexuals", and later on another aquaintance called Gail instinctively assumes that the narrator's lover would be a man.
The main thrust of the book is to convey the feelings and self-examination that come from being totally consumed with love for another person, and there are evocative passages full of tenderness and longing. The book's title is contained in one such passage. Another memorable one is "Louise let me sail with you over these spirited waves. I have the hope of a saint in a coracle." There are also some moments of almost accidental hilarity, "I had a girlfriend once who could only achieve orgasm between the hours of two and five o'clock". And there are some beautiful touches of poetic description, such as "your hair tumbles from your chignon and washes your hair with light".
There are some embellishments to the main story, on everything from space walks to scientific breakthroughs, physiology, historical events and religion. There is also a section on all you ever wanted to know about cancer. I found some of these sections of more interest than others. Some passages appear rather laboured and detract from the main point rather than add to it. "Molecular docking is a serious challenge for bio-chemists" begins an analogy on the compatibilty of the narrator with Louise, which doesn't strike me as particularly ameliorative to the main message.
And despite all the beautiful prose and description, I think the book falls short in one respect. This is not a book I would want to find on a desert island. The love affair is ultimately doomed, the narrator doesn't even say goodbye to Louise (it is suggested she goes off and dies alone), and there is an undercurrent of despair and almost bitterness running through the tale. The narrator has regularly gate-crashed into marriages (Louise was married and the narrator is accussed of destroying their marriage). And "he / she" regularly complains of having to conduct affairs in clandestine fashion, away from prying eyes. Some passages are devoted to the effects of cancer, decomposition of the body, and the process of burial. "For the bereaved, the hole is a frightful place" is found in one section of morbid contemplation. Some passages are quite grisly: "You won't feel the blunt head [of the worm] burrowing into your collapsing tissue." It's often very dispiriting, if not depressing, and I actually found it hard to make myself read to the end of the book.
The language itself sometimes has a cold, almost brutal feel about it. Even some of the author's most intimate passages can be presented in such terms. "She nuzzles her c**t into my face like a filly at the gate" is a colourful description but not very tender or romantic. This is cold, raw, hard reality. You could say cold, hard Presbyterian reality. "This is life. Tough, get on with it" seems to be the main message you take from this book. The problem with that is that people often want more than brutal reality, they want to be inspired, to have hope. This book doesn't give that, although funnily enough her later work "Why Be Happy..." is far more upbeat (if less manic in its content), even though it recounts some of the most traumatic events of the author's own life.
So Jeanette, if you are reading this, this is my challenge to you. Write a book like "Written on the Body" that is both inspiring and full of hope. With your command of language, it would be a work of art indeed.