Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

One of Jeanette Winterson’s strengths is in creating fantastical characters so compelling they can light up whole novels (not that they have to, they aren’t alone here). So far the Dog-Woman of Sexing the Cherry may be my favorite.

The Dog-Woman is Gargantuan. She trains fighting dogs and cares for the boy she plucked from the Thames. She doles out an individual strain of justice, often violently. And she is wonderfully grotesque:

I lifted Jordan up and I told Johnson that if he didn’t throw back his cloth and let us see this wonder I’d cram his face so hard into my breasts that he’d wish he’d never been suckled by a woman, so truly would I smother him.

He starts humming and hawing and reaching for some coloured jar behind his head, and I thought, he’ll not let no genie out on me with its forked tongue and balls like jewels, so I grabbed him and started to push him into my dress. He was soon coughing and crying because I haven’t had that dress off in five years.

The Dog-Woman once had a name, by the bye, but she’s forgotten it. I wonder what that means.

Sexing the Cherry, for most of its length, is formed of alternating narratives by the Dog-Woman and Jordan. Toward the end of the novel, they are joined by modern-day counterparts who sadly lack their vitality. The adventures of the Dog-Woman bringing roundheads to heel in 17th century London and Jordan traveling round the world discovering unusual fruit pretty seriously outshine the brief and conventional stories of an environmental activist and the boy she inspires.

More jarringly, those conventional narratives contrast with the heady magical realism of so much of the novel. Jordan’s pursuit of a mysterious dancer leads to him meeting the first eleven dancing princesses (retellings inserted) and finally the twelfth. We hear the tale of the town that outlawed love. One of Jordan’s first stories sets the tone very well—especially for a logophile like myself:

The words, rising up, form a thick cloud over the city, which every so often must be thoroughly cleansed of too much language. Men and women in balloons fly up from the main square and, armed with mops and scrubbing brushes, do battle with the canopy of words trapped under the sun.

The words resist erasure. The oldest and most stubborn form a thick crust of chattering rage. Cleaners have been bitten by words still quarrelling, and in one famous lawsuit a woman whose mop had been eaten and whose hand was badly mauled by a vicious row sought to bring the original antagonists to court. The men reponsible made their defence on the grounds that the words no longer belonged to them. Years had passed. Was it their fault if the city had failed to deal with its overheads? The judge ruled against the plaintiff but ordered the city to buy her a new mop. She was not satifsied, and was later found lining the chimneys of her accused with vitriol.

Jordan is lucky enough to accompany a cleaner in her balloon. On their way back down they pass “new flocks of words coming from the people in the streets who, not content with the weight of their lives, continually turned the heaviest of things into the lightest of properties.” Universities are covered in a word fog. Lovers are “killed by their own passion” when they suffocate themselves with so many words in an enclosed space. The “wrath spewed from a parson caught fornicating his mother” must be cleaned with holy water. Jordan (and his mother) gives us story after story this good. Sexing the Cherry is a book of stories in this way—another strength of Winterson’s, going by what I have read so far.

I was really taken with Sexing the Cherry, despite some problems I haven’t discussed here. Those issues, like most of the things I like about her writing, seem to recur a bit in Winterson’s work, so I think I’ll write a bit about them later in the week, after I’ve written some about Lighthousekeeping and Weight. Also, Litlove wrote a really great post on Sexing the Cherry in January, including an excellent discussion of the Dog-Woman.

2 comments to Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

  • I find Winterson a fascinating and frustrating writer in about equal measure. I love all the stories she tells, but sometimes feel I’ve missed the point or that certain stories are less well thought out and told than others e.g the contemporary ones at the end of Sexing the cherry.

    I’ll be interested to hear what issues you had with her writing, as I agree both her strengths and her weaknesses seem to recur.

  • A Winterson Week is a very fine idea. Sexing the Cherry remains my personal favourite of her books, perhaps because it was the first one that I read. I must have read it half a dozen times since, and am almost afraid to reread it now in case it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    I do think she hit a barren patch about ten years ago with stuff like Gut Symmetries and The Powerbook but otherwise she’s been remarkably fresh and consistent for 25 years now. I really liked her last one, The Stone Gods, even if it did end with a rambling section on love which seems broadly autobiographical – as most of her recent books seem to end.