Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson (1989): In praise of older books
Week 25: Julie Parsons picks her favourite books
It’s all about the writing. Forget plot, place, dialogue, even character. None of the bricks and mortar of the novel matter.
Reading it is a shock to my system. It reminds me that I can write anything. I can put my fingers on the keyboard and let go.
London , “a foul place, full of pestilence and rot”, in the time of Oliver Cromwell. A woman lives by the river, had a name, but has forgotten it. “They call me the Dog-Woman and it will do.” She’s as big as the elephant in the travelling circus in Cheapside and scarred from smallpox. She finds Jordan, a baby “wrapped up in a rotting sack such as kittens are drowned in. . . She scooped me up, she tied me between her breasts whose nipples stood out like walnuts. She took me home and kept me there with fifty dogs and no company but her own.”
The Puritans are on the rampage. Preacher Scroggs has sex with his wife through a hole in the sheet. The king must die. The executioner sharpens his axe. He tests it on a sheep. “(I)ts legs buckled underneath itself, while the executioner with a single straight swing whistled through the fleece and the muscle and bone.” The king rested his head on the block “gave a signal, and a moment later his head was wrapped in a white cloth and his body carried away.”
But it’s not the kind of book which tries to make the past understandable in terms of the present. The imagined rules supreme. “The future and the present and the past exist only in our minds. . . even the most solid of things. . . are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light.” Above all, it is beautiful. “Singing is my pleasure. . .I sing inside the mountain of my flesh and my voice is as slender as a reed and my voice has no lard in it.”
See what I mean?