Oct/Nov 2000 Book Reviews


Jeanette Winterson
Random House (Oct. 2000) 244 pages
ISBN: 0 224 06103 8

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Undress. Take off your clothes. Take off your body. Hang them up behind the door. Tonight we can go deeper than disguise."

Ali or Alix, who is the writer of this book, runs a shop for disguises. Using her laptop she can fashion you any life you want but the story may change you, because you are the story.

It is an intriguing idea and Jeanette Winterson explores it with her usual inventiveness and imagination and in her usual fluent, poetic prose. And somehow, just as some have always hoped, the computer loses its mechanistic aspects and becomes a key to other worlds--virtual, imaginative worlds where anything is possible and which we just might make our own. Phrases like "Help", "Quit", "Empty Trash" take on new meanings and life and love take on new dimensions DNA becomes a laptop alphabet which can shape our own stories in an invented world.

"Night Screen. Tap tap tap. Tap tap. Tap. The coded message that anyone can read. I keep telling this story - different people, different places, different times - but always you, always me, always this story, because a story is a tightrope between two worlds."

Perhaps it is all the same story, there are certainly echoes of Winterson's own story as told in her other books. And perhaps it is just a love story. It is about true love, doomed love--Lancelot and Guinevere, Oscar and Bosie, Paolo and Franchesca, Ali and the married woman; and about other sorts of love--Mallory and Everest, Ali and the Turkish Princess and a horticultural sex-change, the love of tulips. It is also about Winterson/Ali's own loves--about a lesbian affair which dominates the writer's life, about passion and sex and about the art of fiction, about writing, imagination, possibilities.

The lesbian sex will attract some readers and repel others. Which is a pity, because Winterson is too good a writer to be defined by a single narrow genre. The quality of her writing, her willingness to experiment with styles and with ideas, and her sheer inventiveness can be appreciated by anyone who cares for good writing.

Winterson has been accused (in Elaine Showater's 'Guardian' review of this book) of "an obsession with romantic triangles" and of not dealing with "the big Balzacian questions of the day" (whatever they are). I disagree. I think this book deals with the largest of human concerns--that of making sense of our own lives and of making the most of them.

This is The.Powerbook--a programme which could change your way of looking at life. And all through this book Winterson argues for and demonstrates the power of imagination to transform our inner worlds. It is an experiment which will work for some readers and not for others but it is worth a try. And my only complaint would be that her idea of true love is too romantic, too full of doom and gloom, too (dare I say?) imaginative for me. But then, that is her prerogative and her world.


Previous Piece go to forums Next Piece

What did you think?