Sexing the Cherry
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Winner: E.M. Forster Award, 1989
Original Publication: 1989
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
#187 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
On the surface, Sexing the Cherry is the story of an abandoned baby boy, and the grotesque giantess who finds him on the grimy banks of the Thames. Beneath the surface, the novel is part history, part reality, part past, present, and future, and a lot of magic and fairy tale. Set in 17th century England during Oliver Cromwell and Charles I’s time, we are plunged into the world of Jordan and the murderous Dog-Woman; who is, in the author’s words, “perhaps the only woman in English fiction confident enough to use filth as a fashion accessory.”
Jordan, infected from a young age with wanderlust, befriends John Tradescant, explorer and gardener to the King. The Dog-Woman has always known he will leave her. She recalls bringing Jordan to court at age three to see a curiosity – a banana, and the first ever to arrive in England. The townspeople gathered around, clucking and making remarks, and a fortune-teller tells the Dog-Woman that while many will love Jordan, he will only love once, and his beloved will destroy him.
“…I noticed a woman whose face was a sea voyage I had not the courage to attempt.”
Jordan sets sail with Tradescant, all the while chasing a dancer he once met, who may or may not be the twelfth dancing princess from the famous fairy tale. The Dog-Woman passes her time attempting to make sense of what God wants for her, and from her. She exacts eye-for-an-eye revenge on a hypocritical neighbor, and takes the preached metaphor so literally that she ends up lining her watercress beds with human teeth to aid the drainage. The juxtaposition of the intellectual simplicity of the Dog-Woman and her keen insight into humanity is extremely well done. I recall chuckling at a passage where she bites off a man’s penis (in her ignorance of how fellatio should be performed), because she thinks that they grow back like lizard’s tails. After spending time in a whorehouse, she realizes that penises do not regenerate. Rather than be horrified at disfiguring the previous man, she is amused and thinks to herself that it is indeed unfortunate for men that penises DON’T grow back, seeing as how according to everything she knows, men don’t seem to be very mindful of where they put them.
Fun Fact: Obviously, Jordan and the Dog-Woman are fictional characters, but the backdrop of 17th-century London contains real historical figures. Most notably, I learned that John Tradescant was a real person – botanist, explorer, and royal gardener who brought the first pineapple to England. Historical fiction novelist Philippa Gregory’s “Earthly Joys” is about John Tradescant.
Bother if: This book was very different than most I have read, and was a short, enjoyable read. The story bounces around periods, indicating that time is not a linear construct and that the past, present, and future do not exist. There are houses which are all ceilings and no floors, a floating city in the clouds, and, of course, twelve dancing princesses. There is a little girl whose body grows large enough to encompass her personality, and a little boy who still believes in the magic of the moon. “People say the magic has gone out of the moon now that someone’s stood on it. I don’t think so. It would take more than a man’s foot to steal the moon.” I particularly enjoyed the poetic language and the metaphysical aspects of the story.
Don’t Bother if: To say that the Dog-Woman is rough around the edges is to put it far too mildly. She is repulsive in every facet except her heart. There are also depictions of murder, revenge, rape, torture, dismemberment, and sex including prostitution, group sex, homosexuality, necrophilia, and more. None are graphically told (the mental pictures you supply yourself are more than sufficient), but this is not a novel for everyone, and particularly not younger than mid-teens, depending on the level of maturity. There are also depictions of public executions characteristic of the time period, which were commonplace then and seem particularly brutal today. I thought that it was a wonderfully unique and entertaining story and would recommend it, but I was taken aback by some things. That said, the violence in the story did serve to paint a full picture, rather than simply being there for its own sake or for shock value. The narrative also shifts between characters and time periods. While I did not find it confusing in this instance, some dislike that style of storytelling.