Jeanette Winterson: Written on the Body

The blurb on my copy of Written On The Body says that the gender of the main protagonist/narrator is unspecified, but I can’t help but hear a woman’s voice when I read Winterson. How far are we expected to suspend disbelief and pretend this could be a man? I suppose it must be frustrating for a celebrated female, lesbian writer to always be fighting the same corner; or being see to be. I can understand the impulse to write a non-gender-specific narrator, but I’m just not convinced there’s much point beyond the gesture – it remains a gesture, pure and simple. Perhaps if you didn’t know who Winterson was, and you were a man and had never met a lesbian you might be predisposed to think of this person as male.. but even then.. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m predisposed to swing the other way entirely, so I’m hardly the best judge of how impartial or androgynous this voice actually is. Suffice to say, I got about a page in before I had a fully formed female narrator speaking to me, despite the blurb’s helpful pointer in the direction of androgyny.

It’s a short novel. It’s very dense, and seems to be more an exercise of certain ideas than a novel in the traditional sense. It reads like a study; an exploration of themes. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable or masterful – it is both – but it’s very condensed, and there’s a certain amount of repetition. Perhaps this is to illustrate the obsessive nature of desire, and the fixation that the characters are experiencing.. but I found it a bit tedious at times.

Plot summary: the narrator is a person with a colourful sexual/relationship history and a talent for picking the wrong people; mostly married women (this was the section that I found most enjoyable – it’s full of short studies of brief encounters and character flaws). The narrator ‘settles down’ with a steady, dependable, comfortable woman. The narrator meets another woman, she has red hair – which stands us in good stead for metaphors and similes of autumn – and is married. They start an affair. Our narrator’s dependable other half finds out and wrecks our narrator’s flat. Our narrator continues having the affair and is very happy. The red-haired lover’s husband tells our narrator that his wife has cancer and that only he can help her to live (he is a cancer specialist). Our narrator decides to leave the red-haired lover in order to let her be cured. Red-haired lover doesn’t want to go back to her husband, but our narrator is nowhere to be found. Dischord and disaster and dramatic gestures of self-sacrifice ensue.

Key themes: women and sex, and a side-helping of pathology.

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