The Voyage Out Book Group’s Reader’s Guide to Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Contemporary Female Novelists from England
Other Books From Region:
Pat Barker’s Life Class
Zadie Smith’s NW
Jeanette Winterson is one of the most talented, controversial, and perplexing novelists of our time. Although she has held many labels, Feminist and Experimentalist pop to my mind first, her writing has found a difficult time being pushed into a clean, marketable box. Good.
Born August 27th, 1959, she was adopted by a Pentecostal working class family. Her childhood was spent with this vehemently devout family in a small, factory town. This rigid upbringing lead her to not only rebel, but to rebel by sneaking out back to read books. Books were not always a welcome entertainment in her childhood home.
This upbringing was the inspiration for Winterson’s autobiographical first novel: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Winterson left home early, and managed to read English at St Catherine’s College in Oxford. She graduated and began working a series of odd jobs in and out of the publishing industry.
At 21 Winterson published Oranges, and the world took note. Since then (1985), Winterson has published about a book every 2 years. Her career is that of a prolific, working writer, who challenges herself and her readers every step of the way.
Questions/ Tangents/ Topics:
1) When a book opens with a question, it begs the reader to start thinking of the rest of the book as an answer. In what ways does the opening sentence frame the remainder of the book?
2) The narrator is a very personal first person present tense. The narrator looks back in fits of nostalgia and regret, but how much are we meant to believe what we are being told?
3) Winterson is a writer’s writer. Her words are purposeful. With this sharp focus on language, what is Winterson’s interaction with cliché in this novel?
4) The book can be broken down into three distinct sections: part one in which the narrator lives like an anti-Don Juan, part two where the narrator studies the body, and part three where the narrator turns to Gail for guidance. How are these hard stops and starts handled within the narrative? Distracting? Illuminating?
5) The first line of the book is an end of sorts, a question and a declaration, and the last paragraph is a beginning. How does this confusion fit into Winterson’s novel?
What We Talked About When We Talked About This Book:
- Milan Kundera wrote, “Only what is heavy has value”. This quote was brought in by a member to talk about the opening line and ways in which love can be ‘measured’. It was particularly to think of the opening line in reference to this quote because the word heavy is akin to the word loss in that they both have negative connotations, but we find joy in the way they are being portrayed here. Without loss, love does not exist, without heaviness, value is little.
- We talked about Winterson’s playful writing. Her narrator is successful at getting people into bed, but unsuccessful at everything else. The narration’s ranting/confessional nature lends itself to a comedy of errors. The problem with this playfulness is that, if undetected, it can come off as sentimental or trite. We chose to give Winterson the benefit of the doubt, and consider her forays into the sappy as winks to the reader.
- One of the more lovely passages is on page 89. Here Winterson explains her title in a way that shows the connection between supposedly spiritual things like life and love with the hard biology of living. Eventually we saw this book partly as a treatise connecting these two divergent thought paths.
* A note about the narrator *
It seems impossible to talk about this book without discussing the genderless narrator. Questions of is it a man? Is it a woman? will naturally pop up. The problem with this is that it’s not text based. The narrator is genderless. That’s the way it is, get over it. There is so much more to talk about in this novel than whether a man would do ________, or a woman would do ________. Men are not in fact from mars, and women are not really from venus. (This rant is atypical of what these reader’s guides want to be, but here it is).