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Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, and has won various awards around the world for her fiction and adaptations, including the Whitbread Prize, UK, and the Prix d'argent, Cannes Film Festival.


"A bold, controversial new novel . . . the story of a white hot passion. [Winterson] is regularly singled out as the most talented writer of her generation."

– Mirabella

"Brilliant. . . . Stunning passages of romantic rapture [and] anguished tenderness. Written on the Body takes on a certain cinematic splendor."

– Boston Globe

"At once a love story and a philosophical meditation. . . . A distinctive mix of romanticism and irony, erudition, and passion."

– The New York Times Book Review

"Winterson [is] a sorceress with language [who] has once again proven to be a storyteller of compelling interest and exceptional grace."

– The Atlantic

"A wildly original writer. . . . Written On the Body is a very, very special book. The vision of love it offers is revolutionary, and it is sorely needed."

– Washington Post Book World



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Written on the Body

On the surface, it is a love story for the repentant commitmentphobe; for me, it is a shelter from adolescent heartache.


I first read Jeanette Winterson in college, for a course on the philosophy of art. We were assigned to read several essays from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. The title essay has stuck with me in the years since that course mostly because it offered the most understandable foundation for a class I typically felt lost in, but also because reading Jeanette Winterson felt like slipping into something eccentric and luxurious. Her storytelling style in this essay is straightforward, nearly confrontational for those who do not care about engaging in art. Simply put, art is a full-contact sport.

It turns out, love is too. I was 19 -- hurt and confused by a spectacularly failed romance -- when I bought Written on the Body. On the surface, it is a love story for the repentant commitmentphobe; for me, it is a shelter from adolescent heartache. An initially unsympathetic narrator gives us someone to hate, someone who is not the person we loved until we couldn’t. Watching the narrator reform gives us hope that people have the capacity to change.

It is by no means a perfect book. While it may be cathartic to project all of our hatred onto the narrator, having an unlikeable narrator makes for a frustrating reading experience. To Winterson’s credit, the narrator’s ambiguous identity allows us to hold a mirror up to not only the person we want to hate, but to ourselves, our flaws. Our discomfort with this narrator is part dredged-up memory and part recognition of something we don’t like about who we are or how we act.

A brief summary: Our nameless and genderless narrator has a history of abandoning relationships once the novelty wears off. Along comes Louise, vivacious and sexy and . . . married. To a man. Who works long hours, leaving his wife home alone most of the week. With the house to themselves, Louise and the narrator have their fair share of romps, narrowly avoiding being caught by Louise’s husband. Shortly after leaving him, Louise finds out she has cancer and she leaves the narrator as well.

To cope with Louise’s departure, the narrator moves into a tiny cottage and devotes every waking hour to the medical reference section of the local library:

"If I could not put Louise out of my mind I would drown myself in her. Within the clinical language, through the dispassionate view of the sucking, sweating, greedy, defecating self, I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would recognise her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid. I would recognise her even when her body had long since fallen away."

Thus concludes the first part of the book. The second part, the reward for making it through the sometimes uncomfortable, unenjoyable first, is the catalog of the narrator’s newly acquired knowledge of human anatomy married with memories of Louise’s now failing body. Winterson plays with the concept of what it means to know a person inside and out, something we typically consider synonymous with intimacy. The second half of the book is divided into five sections, the first four of which relate to the hours dedicated to anatomical study; the last section is a return to the more straightforward narrative of the first half. Each of the four anatomical sections -- one each for the cells, the skin, the skeleton, and the special senses -- is written in a stream of consciousness that is at once tender and epic, occasionally dipping into the Bible and other mythologies. From any other writer, this approach might seem hyperbolic, but Winterson is able to make it urgently loving (and maybe a little bit sexy).

Here, the narrator literally learns about Louise, and every other previous lover, from the inside out. It’s the only possible way to compensate and / or atone for being, frankly, a shitty partner. Only through these self-imposed anatomy lessons does the narrator learn how to properly love Louise for everything she is.

Winterson’s style in the second half of Written on the Body is such a departure from the take-no-crap criticism that knocked my socks off in philosophy class. Instead, I was greeted with unanticipated tenderness, particularly in the latter half of the book. I was prepared to hate the narrator as much as I hated the boy who wronged me during winter break; but as the narrator’s steeliness was worn down during the exploration of Louise -- her body, her disease, her mythology -- I found myself coming around to the boy. I saw him as a human, deeply flawed and hurting from problems of his own.

I still have mixed feelings about this experience -- was I in fact the frosty unlikable narrator who needed to learn how to love without putting up insurmountable walls? -- but I am thankful for having lived through it. I am reminded of a concept introduced in Art Objects, Winterson’s theory that our negative responses to art have more to do with us and our lack of understanding than with the art itself. My recoiling from the narrator of Written on the Body is a mirror showing me something I didn’t like about myself. The narrator’s capacity to learn, appreciate, forgive, showed that I have the capacity to do the same and that the boy has the capacity to heal.

The narrator may not have been able to fully love Louise. I may not have been able to fully love this boy, nor he could he fully love me. But I can say that I am able to fully love myself, flaws and all.


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1 Comment

  1. Jordan Blum said on 12/25/11 at 12:41 pm Reply

    Beautiful post, Gillian. I think you pinpoint one of, if not THE main, reason we read and write – to identify with our characters. The best stories are allegories for our lives, and any book that helps you learn more about yourself is successful. And I can relate to the mixed feelings about love and loss. You may not know what the hell happened or why the other person acted like he/she did in the end, but in the end, you have to trust that it was just the end of one chapter in our lives and the start of the next. It was supposed to happen as it did so that the next part can come when it does.


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