Author: Jeanette Winterson
Winner: John Llewwllyn Rhys Prize for Fiction, 1987
Original Publication: 1987
Genre: Fiction (Historical), Magical Realism
#214 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
I’m telling you stories. Trust me…
It is nearly a misnomer to classify Jeanette Winterson’s novels as historical fiction. The settings of her novels, while interesting, rarely seem to matter. It seems that she simply chooses a setting and time period, and then weaves the tale she wants to tell into that setting. The setting in this case is France, Russia, and Venice during the Napoleonic Wars. As is usual for Winterson’s stories, the everyday, verifiable ordinary clashes with the magical and surreal. We begin with our hero Henri, a young Frenchman sent to fight. Henri becomes a neck-wringer, one of the several men tasked with keeping The Emperor well supplied with the chicken dishes he insists upon several times per day. Henri struggles between hero-worship of Napoleon and the horrors of war.
Next, we meet Villanelle, the cross-dressing daughter of a boatsman. Villanelle is web-footed, can walk on water, and knows her way around the secret places of Venice like the back of her hand. Villanelle works in a gambling casino dressed as a boy, which enables her to meet a wide variety of characters. She has an ill-fated affair with a prominent married woman who steals her heart and keeps it in a jar. Henri and Villanelle meet in Russia and, exhausted with their respective lives, decide to run away together along with Henri’s friend Patrick. Henri falls instantly in love with Villanelle, which complicates their relationship. The three begin the two-thousand mile trek back to Villanelle’s home in Venice.
I hesitate to go into further detail about the plot or the end, lest too much be given away. Each character has a special power, and the supernatural and magical are woven together throughout the story. Despite the setting, the story is less about war than it is about unrequited love. Every character gets loved, but no character gets loved in the way that they wish they were. Once lost, whether literally or figuratively, one’s heart can never really be theirs again.
Fun Fact: It is stated on the author’s website that Miramax has bought the rights to the film version of The Passion, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Juliette Binoche are signed. No further information seems to be available at this time.
Bother if: If you’re a fan of cleverly written magical realism, this story might really appeal to you. Winterson’s writing is always a treat regardless of the story – it’s lyrical and nearly poetry by itself, and is intensely quotable:
“What is more humiliating than finding the object of your love unworthy?”
“She had made him possible. In that sense she was his god. Like God, she was neglected.”
“Love, they say, enslaves and passion is a demon and many have been lost for love. I know this is true, but I know too that without love we grope in the tunnels of our lives and never see the sun.”
Whether I adored the story or not – and I did not – Winterson’s writing always makes me catch my breath. For a lover of words, her writing alone makes the novel worthy of reading.
Don’t bother if: The story is told in four parts – The Emperor (Henri), The Queen of Spades (Villanelle), The Zero Winter, and The Rock (both Henri & Villanelle.) Some people dislike shifting narrative voices. Many have held The Passion up to be Winterson’s best work, to which she replied “read them all.” To date, I have read two, and this was my least favorite of those (see Sexing the Cherry.) I did not find anything particularly offensive about this book. I did find it easy to put down, despite it being a short read and liking it well enough. There is some mild sex and violence. Newcomers to the author may wish to start elsewhere – and I do recommend giving Winterson a chance. The story is an escape from reality and very much a supernatural fairy tale. Non-fans of the genre needn’t bother with this novel at all, although I felt that Sexing the Cherry was a terrific read regardless of one’s literary proclivities.