Letters, Reviews & Speeches

Jeanette Winterson
Alfred A. Knopf

Jeanette Winterson, the highly acclaimed British novel and essayist, author of the sublime ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT and SEXING THE CHERRY, among other works, has just released her first book of short stories.

Generally I avoid the short story. Unless it has been written by a true master of the craft, all too often they end up feeling like exercises that have immense importance to the author but are of little interest to the reader. Happily this is not the case with Winterson. To be sure, there are a couple of near clunkers in the bunch. ATLANTIC CROSSING feels like an early work by a writer just discovering her voice. The characters have potential but the story seems contrived and self-conscious without really adding up to anything interesting. THE THREE FRIENDS seems much more an idea or sketch than a story and feels obvious and overly precious. However it must also be said that Winterson at her worst is still head and shoulders above most writers and none of these stories is ever anything less than readable.

The other fifteen stories in the collection are of superior quality. Whether she's describing the heartbreaking joy of the acquisition of a new puppy, (THE TWENTY-FOUR HOUR DOG) the earthy and sensual rituals of a lesbian relationship, each segment framed by those hilarious questions straight people always ask of homosexuals; why do you sleep with girls? Which one of you is the man? What do lesbians do in bed? Etc. (THE POETICS OF SEX) or the wryly amusing tale of an overbearing mother inflicting a biblically named tortoise on her subconsciously rebellious daughter (PSALMS) Winterson always manages to approach her subjects from a slightly oblique angle, rendering them both recognizable and alien at the same time.

In O'BRIEN'S FIRST CHRISTMAS, the story of a woman who finds happiness and learns to be herself after being magically turned blonde by a woman claiming to be the Christmas fairy, Winterson writes…

"She had once answered a Lonely Hearts advertisement and eaten dinner with a small young man who mended organ pipes. He had suggested they get married that night by special licence. O'Brien had declined on the grounds that a whirlwind romance would tire her out after so little practice. It seemed rather like going to advanced aerobics when you couldn't manage five minutes on the exercise bicycle. She had asked him why he was in such a hurry. "I have a heart condition." So it was like aerobics after all."

At her best Jeanette Winterson manages to evoke an emotional response from the reader in a fashion that is closer to music than anything literary. Winterson's word choice and sentence structure is as concise as musical notation. Words stand out on their own, clearly having been chosen for their sound, the picture they form in your mind as you read them, their uniqueness. Each of these words add up to sentences that are startling in their clarity, often funny as hell and occasionally as ticklishly frustrating as a particularly brilliant riddle. Then magically, as the stories wind down, these bald words and invigorating images manage to somehow morph into elegant, elliptical conclusions that linger in the mind long after you've set the book down.

Winterson's best stories are like Peter Gabriel's best songs. The words and the images are unforgettable and moving, there are no easy conclusions and they always pay off with an emotional satisfaction that renders intellectual understanding secondary if not entirely unimportant. This book is like Lou Reed's BERLIN or Kate Bush's HOUNDS OF LOVE. It is a work to be savored, to be read repeatedly, and in each reading to find new depths, new complexities and new insights. THE WORLD AND OTHER PLACES is well worth the time and effort required.