Thursday, 10 June 2010

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

One of my favourite books, this was first lent to me in January 1994 while I was doing my A-Levels and created quite an impression on me at the time, especially in the way that the gender of Winterson’s protagonist, a vulnerable and subversive Lothario, remains undeclared throughout the novel.

The story is about a love affair, or rather the end of an affair, ended by what appears at first to be the narrator’s noble intentions but turns out to be foolish heroics. After numerous affairs in their youth, (including one with a woman who blew up men’s lavatories and another with a giant who carried his midget parents around on his shoulders), the narrator tells us that they are in a steady and unexciting relationship with a woman who works with small furry animals at London Zoo. Into this staid existence comes Louise, an Antipodean redhead, married.

Their affair is passionate and destructive. The furry animal specialist leaves, distraught. Louise’s husband Elgin gets nasty. They leave it for three days but the pressure starts to get to our narrator:

Was I in sound mind and body? I took my temperature. No. I peered at my head in the mirror. No. Better go to bed close the curtains and get out the gin bottle. That was how Louise found me at six o’clock on the evening of the third day. She had been telephoning since noon but I had been too sodden to notice.

And after that? Bliss, happiness, cancer.

Louise has a rare form of leukaemia. The only person who says he knows how to treat her is her estranged husband. Arguing that saving Louise’s life is more important than their love, the narrator leaves her to get help from Elgin and holes up in Yorkshire. She finds work in a local wine bar, a far cry from her life in London with Louise:

The wine bar, otherwise known as ‘A Touch of Southern Comfort’, was staging a spring festival to attract back customers whose overdrafts still hadn’t recovered from the Christmas festival. For us who worked there, this meant dressing in lime-green body stockings with a simple crown of artificial crocuses about our heads. The drinks had a spring theme: March Hare Punch, Wild Oat Sling, Blue Tit. It didn’t matter what you ordered, the ingredients were all the same apart from the liquor base. I mixed cheap cooking brandy, Japanese whisky, something that called itself gin and the occasional filthy sherry with pulp orange juice, thin cream, cubes of white sugar and various kitchen colourings. Soda water to top up and at £5.00 a couple (we only served couples at Southern Comfort) cheap at the price during Happy Hour.

The narrator spends the next months fending off the advances of Gail, the wine bar’s owner, (fifty-three and as wild as a Welshman with a leek up his arse). After a pretty alcoholic evening, Gail sets out a few home truths:

Gail was drunk. She was so drunk that when her false eyelash fell into her soup she told the waiter it was a centipede. “I got something to tell you kiddo,” she said leaning down at me the way a zookeeper drops fish at a penguin. “Want it?” There was nothing else to have. Magic Pete’s was an all-night drinking club, low on amenity, high on booze. It was Gail’s revelation or find 50p for the jukebox. I didn’t have 50p. “You made a mistake.”

Desperate, the narrator runs back to London to find Louise, but she has vanished without a trace. She never took help from Elgin; she stayed in their shared flat but is no longer there. The book ends with a return to Yorkshire and Gail, who looks like she’s moving in... And in the last few lines, something wonderful, or is just as vague as he narrator’s real identity? (Interestingly enough, the last time I read it I was much more optimistic as to the outcome.) Why is the measure of love loss?

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