The novel most people think of when they hear the name Jeanette Winterson is Oranges are not the Only Fruit. Usually you hear the word 'auto-biographical' in some relation to it and of course 'lesbian'. As it happens both are not so much incorrect as incidental. She would, I am sure, be as puzzled to find it in the biography section of a Bookshop as she would be annoyed to find it in the Queer section. But it is the case with all her novels that the biographical - or perhaps better the personal is painfully, honestly, barely at the forefront, confessing itself to the reader.
Mothers can be difficult. Oranges is honest about this - though often with affectionate humour. It is the only book of Jeanette's that Mrs Winterson read. This is a shame really because the Dog Woman, to me, is an apology for difficult mothers and there is something in Sexing the Cherry that seems like an attempt to reach out here; if not to understand then at least to accept difference.
Sexing also continues the clear themes that run throughout all JW's novels - they are always about the attempt to escape, there is always the presence of transcendence - at the edge of the novel's world and the reader's, - there is a preoccupation with honesty - about the nature of feelings, of language, of our experience. They make you think. No matter how convoluted her plots, the diversions of magical realism, of parody and pastiche, what she writes about is what is most real: Love - how we lose it, how we run away from it, how we cling on to it and how it burns us.
This for me makes the best sort of writing. A free imagination tied to intensity of feeling and a bold, observant, scrupulous honesty. Sexing is a great read. It's an historical romp, it's an imaginative adventure, it's a philosophical experiment, it's a revisionist myth-making. It's funny, it's sweet, it's thought-provoking. And it's short. Praise God for short novels.
Some people say that's she's quite hard to read. This is laziness. It's true there is a lot of reference to other poems and novels - she has a super memory - and you'll hear Eliot, Browning, Byron, Marvell and many others alongside a crooked Bible and a wonky copy of myths and fairytales. But it stands on its own feet and - at the end of the day - if you don't start reading somewhere when will you ever get back to reading English Literature A to Z?
I first read this novel to help my mum. She was writing a paper on it and wanted me to trace the biblical refences in it. It took a long time and eventually became the impetus for my phd proposal. In a way that is probably the best sort of response. It is a novel about self-discovery - tracing the lineaments of the face you see in the mirror - and following it like the mystics used to describe the itinerarium intus, the journey of the soul. I read her more recent, and more obviously autobiographical, Why be Happy when you could be Normal? today. It has the same searing honesty, the same wit, the same genius for a turn of phrase. She is postmodern in all the good and interesting ways - through telling stories, petit recit, the awareness and deconstruction of power, the playfulness, parody and pastiche; but underlying it all is a quest for truth and a spirit that hungers for transcendence.
Sexing the Cherry is all of these things. It should make you want to leave home - whether or not that means getting out of your chair. It should make you want to think - which requires imagination and passion.