Jeanette Winterson – The Passion

Thank you to Bibliographing for introducing me to Jeanette Winterson. I’ll be dutifully tracking down every single one of her fourteen or so books, both fiction and non-fiction. Any suggestions on where to begin from those of you that already know her work?

It took me all of two days to read The Passion. Not only because it is a slender little book, but mostly because I was loathe to disrupt the atmosphere the book created. It was both highly realistic and extremely magical, and I love a book that can embody that paradox without becoming awkward. It managed to accomplish this feat by embracing those emotions we continue to consider mysterious – namely, love, but also trauma and how humans cope with a full range of disappointments and disillusions.

I don’t want to give away the details of the story except to say that The Passion is an historical fairytale – set in Napoleon’s France as well as in Venice. It’s about Henri, an earnest young Frenchman, and Villanelle, an unusual Venetian, and their respective passions. Despite the historical nature of the story, reading The Passion felt more like reading contemporary, experimental fiction. Another reason I enjoyed it so much.

Someone else will have to tell me if this is characteristic of Winterson’s style but the prose in the novel had a weighted and lyrical quality. Key phrases were repeated throughout, each time accruing slightly more meaning. This is a risky technique, because often the opposite can occur and the phrases can come off sounding cliché. This didn’t happen with The Passion and I think this is mainly due to Winterson successfully creating a fantastic, fabulous, nearly-carnival ambiance.

On her website, Winterson writes this:

The past is strange. We have never been there and we can never go there. I have never recognised the past as a document, rather I understand it as a kind of lumber room, full of trunks of old clothes and odd mementoes. There are as many narratives as there are guesses.

She writes this in a description of her other novel, Sexing the Cherry, but it strikes me as relevant to The Passion as well. I love this idea of the past as something a writer can re-construct both faithfully and unfaithfully – precisely because we can only guess and invent and imagine. We can never visit the past, we can only be bold enough to try to give it meaning and shape. To attempt to make something out of the remnants which make their way forward into our present as clues.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

12 thoughts on “Jeanette Winterson – The Passion”

  1. Yay, you liked it! No, really though, you echo my feelings so closely. I haven’t read The Passion but it does sound in many ways very like Sexing the Cherry and I think you will really like that one. And all of them!

  2. I really enjoyed The Passion as well but found that everything I read of hers afterward was either too similar or too pretentious. It was disappointing. But it may just be a personal taste issue.

  3. I haven’t read any Winterston, but I do have a copy of “Written on the Body” sitting in my TBR pile. Your review has made me all the more excited to read it – from the snippets I have read, I do have the sense that the “weighted and lyrical quality” you note in “The Passion” is likely to be something her writing typically embodies.

  4. Yes the weighted, lyrical and playful prose are very much in Winterson’s style, as is her rather atypical version of history.

    I find her a fascinating though occasionally frustrating writer. I feel Sexing the cherry is let down by the rather tacked on ending, but would still reccomend it. And as I mentioned yesterday, Lighthousekeeping is my favourite (so far!).

  5. For some reason I’ve never read Winterson’s adult books, although I loved her fortnightly column in the Times. I did, however, read the book she wrote a couple of years ago, for children, ‘Tanglewreck’ and thought she really didn’t bring that off. I must try again.

  6. Nicole – I am really excited to try her other work, thanks so much!

    Colleen – That’s interesting, I hope I don’t have the same experience. I’ve had that happen in the past, however, where you read the best offering by an author first and everything pales in comparison afterward. Such a bummer.

    Steph – I agree, it seems to be her writing style. So it’s a good thing I enjoyed it. Looking forward to your thoughts on Writings on the Body.

    Mel – I’ll be curious to see what you think and whether you find some connections to a reading life in The Passion.

    Devoted Reader – I can’t wait to try her other work, especially Sexing the Cherry and Lighthousekeeping…both look really interesting.

    Biblibio – I know! I had no idea what to expect when I opened the cover, and was delighted to see how the narrative worked.

    Ann – I saw that she also wrote for children, it’s always interesting when an author works in several genres. I’ll be curious to see what you think of her for-adults books.

  7. The Passion is one of my favourite books and your review voices accurately why I love it so much. I have read another Jeanette Winterson but didn’t like it so much. I have just got hold of Sexing the Cherry. Glad you enjoyed this one.

  8. I was going to say that the quote sounded like Sexing the Cherry, the only Winterson book I have read. From what you say of the Passion, many of the same elements are employed in Sexing the Cherry too (fairytales, a magical realism quality, a poetic voice). I think I have The Passion on my bookshelf, if not I will be sure to add it.

  9. Leah – We’ll have to compare notes on Sexing the Cherry, since I should get my copy in a few days!

    Stefanie – I realize now that you all did Sexing the Cherry for a recent Slaves read, isn’t that right? I should read it and then go back and read everyone’s reviews. Should be interesting.

  10. I haven’t read The Passion, but I will now. It sounds intriguing. I agree about writing about the past. I can and do research until I feel that I have a time and place in my grasp down to the smallest details but I’m still creating it in my image. Even writing about my own time and place is a creation, all the more so another.

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