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Book review: “Sexing the Cherry” by Jeanette Winterson.

In Sexing the Cheery, her elliptical 1989 novel — equal parts poetry and philosophy — Jeanette Winterson tells of a handful of characters in the complex setting of time and of space.

winterson.sexing the cherry

Jordan in 17th century England and his mother called Dog-woman by her neighbors. Fortunata, one of 12 dancing sisters, Another (?) Jordan in the United States of 1990. A 20th century Fortunata-like woman fighting polluters.

The narration in the book shimmies and shifts like mercury as paragraph follows paragraph. Fortunata’s 11 sisters have a walk-on part near the midpoint of the novel during which each explains why and how her marriage to a prince failed. “But he never touched me,” one says. “It was a boy he loved. I pierced them both with a single arrow where they lay.”

There are numbered LIES that are dropped here and there into the tale, such as LIES 8 which has to do with Fortunata’s report that the first thing she ever saw was a winter landscape, which parallels the opening page of the book on which Jordan (the 17th century one) reports that the first thing he saw was a night scene in a field.

LIES 8: It was not the first thing she saw, how could it have been? Nor was the night in the fog-covered field the first thing I saw. But before then we were like those who dream and pass through life as a series of shadows. And so what we have told you is true, although it is not.


“No tenses”

It is possible to read that paragraph and understand it as a reference to remembering — the farthest back that Fortunata can go in her childhood is a memory of that winter landscape; the farthest Jordan can go back is that night in the field.

Yet, I think Winterson wants to assert something deeper: That the world is inhabited with two types of people — one type “who dream and pass through life as a series of shadows” and a second type who are able to see life for what it is.

And what, for Winterson, is life?

In part, it has to do with the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest. Twice in her book, Winterson makes virtually the same reference:

The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time?

We recognize — don’t we? — that we carry our past with us as we carry our bodies and that our futures reside in us, in the decisions we will make, the roads we will take.

And it’s not just time that is like this. Often, in Sexing the Cherry, it is difficult to know whether a character is experiencing an event in the “real” world or daydreaming. As with the Hopis and time, there is no “real” world. It is all real.


The complexity of the seemingly simple

Winterson’s novel is a lyric to the complexity of the seemingly simple facts of time and space. She writes, or perhaps it is the first Jordan speaking:

The earth is round and flat at the same time. This is obvious. That it is round appears indisputable; that it is flat is our common experience, also indisputable. The globe does not supersede the map; the map does not distort the globe.

The mental map of our neighborhood, our city, is true, but so is the globe in space that astronauts see. A few pages later, Winterson writes (or does Dog-Woman speak?):

My experience with time is mostly like my experience with maps. Flat, moving in a more or less straight line from one point to another. Being in time, in a continuous present, is to look at a map and not see the hills, shapes and undulations, but only the flat form. There is no sense of dimension, only a feeling for the surface.

Here, again, are the two types of people: Those who live life as a map, “who dream and pass through life as a series of shadows,” and those who recognize that “hills, shapes and undulations” are present in the landscape, even if the map doesn’t show them.


Chunky brush strokes

sower-1888And then there are the paintings that the novel refers to, such as The Sower by Vincent Van Gogh. It shows a peasant walking home in the evening with a huge yellow sun setting (moon rising?) behind him.

Yet, look closely. That sun (or moon) is simply thick paint bulked onto the canvas.

Is the scene we see not real? Of course, it is. In its way. We see the painting, and it clicks in our mind: “Here is a person, a tree, a field, the sky and the sun (or is it the moon?)”

sower-1888...detail 3.....

But we also see, when we study the image, that it is false inasmuch as it is created by chunky brush strokes.

Or consider A Hunt in a Forest by 15th century painter Paulo Uccello. Then look closer at the center of the image.


In this early use of perspective in a painting, the animals and hunters appear smaller the further they are from the forefront of the picture. They appear to be fading off into a fathomless darkness.


But, like the image by Van Gogh, these animals and hunters are no further from the viewer than those in the forefront. And all of these characters in the painting aren’t there. They are just daubs of paint.


“Seas and cities”

In Sexing the Cherry, even gender shimmies and shifts which is the source of the title. Jordan and his mother called Dog-Woman are talking about a grafting of the branch from one type of tree into another:

I tried to explain to her that the tree would still be female although it had not been born from seed, but she said such things had no gender and were a confusion to themselves.

“Let the world mate of its own accord,” she said, “or not at all.”

But the cherry grew, and we have sexed it and it is female.

It’s a good title, but it might have been something else, such as Truths I Already Know, as in Jordan’s description of his feelings as he left Fortunata on her island:

I thought she might want to travel but she tells me truths I already know, that she need not leave the island to see the world, she has seas and cities enough in her mind.

Patrick T. Reardon

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