Oct/Nov 1998 Book Reviews

The World and Other Places

Jeanette Winterson
Random House, 1998 234pp
ISBN: 0 224 05136 9

reviewed by Ann Skea

"There were six of us at night in the living room. Six people and six carpet tiles. Usually the tiles were laid two by three in a dismal rectangle, but on Saturday night, aeroplane night, we took one each and sat cross legged with the expectation of an Arabian prince."

So begins the title piece of this book of stories. It is a fantasy which Winterson says was written for and American Express magazine travel issue. They "sent it back with a very cross note". Fantasy spiced with irony was definitely not what they wanted. So none of the pieces in this book would have suited them either. Far too imaginative.

Imagination and the gift of words. Winterson excels in both. By the middle of the first page of this book I found I had a smile of delight on my face at her knack of seeing things differently and capturing this so precisely in words. "He was soft as rainwater", she writes of her 24-hour puppy. "He had the kind of legs that go round in circles. He orbited me. He was a universe of play".

Not all the stories display this metaphorical exuberance. Winterson uses it judicially. But her imagination is given full rein, especially in the matter of gender. For a writer who makes her lesbianism very clear, this is probably appropriate. But the reader may initially be confused by the sudden change of sex of the narrator who tells most of these stories. Virginia Woolf's Orlando could well be the narrator's role-model, but there is sometimes a personality change as well.

Winterson plays with sex and gender, as she plays with time, perception and myth. Nothing is fixed. In 'The Poetics of Sex', she asks and responds to questions with which she must be very familiar: "Why Do You Sleep With Girls?", "What Do Lesbians Do In Bed?", "Don't You Find There's Something Missing?". Her 'answers' are a paean to sex. A celebration of luxurious physical eroticism. She plays with the prurient curiosity of the questioner but only the pedantic would repeat the questions.

In a very different way the story, 'Newton', plays with social conventions. "All my neighbours are Classical Physicists", says Tom. "Their laws of motion are determined. They get up at 7am and leave for work at 8am....". Hmm! I see what he means. Winterson extends this reinterpretation of physics into pure science-fiction fantasy. This is a dangerous game and she risks stretching her reader's imaginative tolerance too far, but mercifully she keeps it short.

She plays the same imaginative game with varying success in other stories. 'Disappearance I' and 'Disappearance II', for example, take the notion of a vanishing room as their starting point. Their narrators are very different in character and sex, but both live in a fantastic world and for one the madness is as much internal as external. For me, the pure fantasy of the first story worked better than the semi-reality of the second. But perhaps I just like the lively first narrator better than the snobbish, middle-aged, dullard who tells the second story.

Jeanette Winterson has antagonised many people with her outspoken claims of her own ability. The advantage of such self-confidence is that she challenges conventions and is not afraid to go to extremes. She has lost some of her readers in flights of fancy which got out-of-hand in some of her recent novels, but the short-story form suits her abilities perfectly. At her best, she is brilliant, inventive and a delight to read. She is at her best in many of the pieces in this book.


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