Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Vintage, 1994, 192 pages
Written on the Body came into my life as a recommendation. I typically don’t take recommendations for books because (a) my TBR list is huge, (b) I generally find I have a good grip on the kinds of things I like to read more than other people do, and (c) I have a degree in advising people on what they should read based on their interests*, so I’m perfectly capable of doing it for myself. But sometimes I accept recommendations and even follow up on them because it can be a useful tool to getting to know the person who is doing the recommending and once in a while, it’s good to step outside yourself and, I don’t know, hear other people’s opinions on stuff and things, I guess.
So I picked up Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson after being told that it was the best book ever and totally beautiful and heartbreaking and all the things you want a good book to be.
Not so much for me.
A novella, the book tells the story of an unnamed first-person narrator. We don’t know the narrator’s gender. The narrator falls in love with a married woman and waxes poetic about all her best qualities and the lowercase- and capital-R romance of it all. Life is one big beautiful tragedy for our dramatic narrator who deals in metaphor after metaphor. And it’s about to get a whole lot worse. The love interest (who I’ll remind you is married) reveals that she has cancer. With an obsession that leans toward stalking and feelings of being torn between allowing the woman to get the best possible medical treatment and spending as much time with her as possible, the narrator spirals.
I like pretentious literature as much as the next person, but this was overboard for me. Aside from trying to sell a clearly unhealthy relationship as something romantic, Winterson overdoes her prose with a poetic intensity that is exhausting. After the first dozen or so pages, I found myself asking how could she possibly sustain this over-the-top narration style for an entire novella? I still don’t know the answer as to how she managed it, but she certainly did and it was not comfortable nor useful, I think, to any sort of plot or character development aside from maybe suggesting the narrator doesn’t exactly live in reality but prefers to see the world as a stage and capital-A Art house. Or something.
Ultimately, Written on the Body felt like the kind of experimental artsy stuff I read in my college writing classes. It was aimless and inconclusive. It was pretentious and inaccessible. It was so not for me.
I can appreciate the artfulness of it, though. I can see why it might be a valuable piece of literature to read, particularly in an academic setting (and even more so if that was an academic setting of primarily women, but I’m biased). But if you’re looking for a straightforward read for brain candy, you won’t find it here.
*This is a gross simplification of my MLIS.
❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤