Jeanette Winterson writes poetry masked as novels. In terms of the use of language, she is simply one of the best writers working today. I’ve read only two of her books—The Passion and Written on the Body—but I have happily lost myself in both of them. They both speak to love but Written on the Body is a love letter. The entire book is a revelation, a revelry, a complete indulgence of love.
The book is about an affair between the main character—who is unnamed and whose gender is never specified—and a married woman. It is, very simply, a story about love in all its senses. The descriptions throughout the book are visceral, emotional, heartfelt. The words are alive. I can’t explain Winterson’s writing properly, except to say that she is amazing at capturing emotion.
Leaving the gender of the main character unknown is genius and is, for me, one element that really sets the book apart from any other well-written story about love. By doing this—and by writing the character as such that the gender really could go either way—the reader is left undistracted by the mechanics of the affair and is instead able to focus on the emotion. There are times in the story that I imagined the main character as a male and other times as a female—and there is backstory that has the main character in relationships with both males and females. What this serves to do is strip love down to nothing more (and nothing less) than an emotion. It’s hard to relate how well this works, but when you’re left reading about a relationship that cannot be categorized as either homosexual or heterosexual, it somehow opens up that relationship and allows the reader to better explore the nonphysical and metaphysical elements of love.
Those elements, meanwhile, are both painful and joyful. This is not a naïve celebration of love and it does not gloss over the heartache that love can bring. Winterson’s words are inspiring, yes, but they are also messy and complicated and relate just how disturbing, painful and destructive relationships can be. The novel is poetry and hyperbole, but it is also reality.
In Written on the Body, love is an expansive emotion—the key to unlocking and seizing upon the world, even the universe. Love is portrayed as a driving, haunting force—all-encompassing and too potent to ever be ignored—and it is portrayed beautifully, with graceful language that will echo in your head. This is love, this is poetry and, perhaps most importantly, this is not a story to be ignored.
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