Sexing The Cherry, Jeanette Winterson
If you’re expecting a tale of unfulfilled young lesbian ardour set among Lancashire’s satanic mills, as I was from Sexing The Cherry, this story will shock you. Instead it’s a bawdy and gory romp through Oliver Cromwell’s pious London in which the two narrators, Dog-Woman and her adopted son Jordan, navigate a world of opportunity and hypocrisy, beauty and beastliness, and the sort of heady desire wrought by fairy tales and prohibition.
Dog-Woman’s passages are announced in the book by a small illustration of a banana, Jordan’s by a pineapple. These two fruits were, at the time, rare wonders from a new world. Jordan sets off on a life of discovery, sponsored by the king’s gardener, and his mother attempts to interpret these bizarre findings and how they fit into her city and society.
From the outset, little is what it seems. I’d describe Winterson’s style as magical realism, and it plays with the limits of our beliefs, and with time and space. Although I was expecting a different story entirely, by the end I come to know what I’d found so familiar about the story. Yes: I’d read it before.
Winterson creates a series of absurd vignettes as she guides us through revolutionary England, and her mastery of language is as playful as her mystical characters. Dog-Woman is an ugly giant, far in both physicality and character from anything we typically accept as female in terms of representation. Winterson also weaves the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses through the book, giving each the chance to escape their husbands and live a new life of their choosing, which often means they kill the men.
It felt wrong to me that I hadn’t read anything by Winterson – even though it turns out I had – and obviously I was confusing cherries with oranges when I expected a coming of age lesbian story. I will read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit now, and think more about the books I have re-read often, which are Anna Karenina and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As well as never remembering each as well as I think I will, I find entirely new books in them each time. I think I might treat myself to Wuthering Heights before the year’s out.