Title: Written on the Body
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Publication Date: 1993
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 6 out of 5 hearts
In honor of wedding week, I’m sharing one of my very favorite books, as well as one of my biggest literary influences with you today. Jeanette Winterson is a goddess among writers when it comes to depicting raw emotion. I fully believe she could make me feel whatever she wanted to with a flick of her wrist and a few taps of the keyboard. This is an author who had the confidence (and gall) to vote for her own book when on a panel of judges for a book award. (You know, I can’t find a source on that factoid, but one of my very favorite college professors told me that story and I have always loved it.) Written on the Body is a story of how our unnamed narrator meets and courts and loves and loses Louise. It’s the entire emotional journey, which is part of what makes it very special to me. You get the whole narrative arc, not just the parts of a literary romance that make you happy.
Our narrator’s love is a desperate love, one that consumes the heart, mind, and soul. I am always struck by how the narrator isn’t exactly likable, but is kind of an everyman. Consider every jealous, insecure thought you’ve ever had in a relationship. It’s addressed. Think of every moment you’ve had with a significant other that made you feel whole, content, safe, and satisfied. Check. Think of the things you’ve done after a bad breakup, every crazy thought or idea you’ve had to win someone back. It’s in there.
“What are you that makes me feel thus? Who are you for whom time has no meaning?”
Our narrator is an emotional open book to us, but a literal mystery. We don’t know the name, gender, even hair color of the person whose perspective gives us the story. We’re essentially looking through the eyes of someone who doesn’t look in the mirror. The story starts with Louise, and drifts back and forward in time through recollections of their first meeting, romantic encounters, obstacles, other relationships. Some of the writing has such a dreamlike quality that we’re not entirely sure if the event being described really happened.
My enjoyment of the book has always hinged on my ability to stop trying to pin down the details. This is not a book with a fascinating plot that makes you anticipate the next turn in the narrative. It’s really a story you need to let wash over you and sink into your bones, rather than one that can be charted and fact-checked. Our narrator is unknown and unreliable. No one in Written on the Body is an especially good person. But if you let yourself be pulled in without asking too many questions, the payoff is immensely enjoyable.
“You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them.”
The book is written pretty explicitly. This is a hallmark of Winterson’s. The language is raw and uses simple words in beautiful context to deliver a really powerfully emotional read. The is definitely one to read with a highlighter or pen in your hand, every time. I am always finding new passages that speak to me. These are the thoughts you commit to a journal that you keep under lock and key, reading parts of your entries to yourself at night in the moonlight like a whispered oath.
My very favorite portion of Written on the Body, the part most beautifully written, is in the middle. Winterson’s narrator gets into anatomy and medical texts, and takes a moment to address parts of Louise: her bones, skin, sense of hearing. Each short essay is a lyrical gem and is prefaced by an excerpt from a medical text. This is where pretty erotic, very emotional raw fiction meets high art, literary fiction. By addressing these parts of Louise separately, yet weaving them together to create the essence and body of the person our narrator loves, you as a reader get a shockingly real sense of what makes a person whole.
“Explore me,’ you said and I collected my ropes, flasks and maps, expecting to be back home soon. I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I’m free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognise myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know.”
I am a big fan of the memoir genre, and this book reads like a cross between memoir and essay. It never fails to make me re-read passages that speak to me, underlining and annotating like I’m a student again. And the best books, my favorites, all give me that feeling of discovery and wanting to absorb absolutely every bit of meaning from them.
What are your favorite love stories? Who are your literary icons?
Lit & Love,