‘You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear?’
Written on the Body is an experimental, poetic novel written from the point of view of a narrator with no name and no gender signifiers, recounting their relationship with a married woman. The narrative is non-linear, meandering between memories of her married lover, Louise, and others before her.
I’ll be honest, I started this book on the train to Book Club. It’s been a hectic sort of month. But by page thirty two, I was hooked. The story itself is thin, but the prose is rich – almost overflowing – and completely engaging. So it was enough to have some thoughts to share. And luckily half of our little group had finished the thing, so there was plenty to talk about. In fact, we managed to stay on topic for over two hours.
The first question that came up was, who did we think narrated the story? Every single one of us identified them as a woman. While we admitted some bias – the book was written by a woman, and selected for the club by a lesbian woman who rates this as one of her favourite books – we also discussed what made us think of them as a she. After all, Winterson was careful to use mixed gender comparisons when describing them: swaggered like Mercutio, trembled like a schoolgirl (these are complete misquotes, I’m sorry) and keeps all descriptions of their clothing gender neutral. Several members thought the narrator noticed and described small moments as only a woman would. Another thought the narrator had seemed out of place in the men’s bathroom, treating it (and other instances when they encounter men) like foreign territory. I felt the love interest’s husband was far too unthreatened by the narrator spending so much time alone with his wife for it to be a man. Another, the least convinced of the narrators gender either way, admitted the book had caused her to examine her own notions of stereotyped gender behaviour. At no point did we examine why it was so important for most of us to assign a gender to the narrator, which is an interesting question in itself.
‘I have a head for heights it’s true, but no stomach for the depths. Strange then to have plumbed so many.’
Conversation went from unhappy marriages to the nature of affairs and trust to whether we perceived the narrator as selfish (a resounding yes, from those who’d read far enough), to the usefulness of homing pigeons, to the strength of the story versus the strength of the prose. We agreed the story, in the hands of a different writer, probably wouldn’t be worth reading. Some of us (okay, me) pointed out aspects of the prose we’d definitely find annoying written by someone else, and one of our members argued there were not enough sex scenes. But she also hadn’t finished the book, and was advised – very enthusiastically – to keep going.
I can’t rate the book, but I can promise to finish it. It’s rare to find a poetic writer I can sit through, let alone enjoy, so I’m glad to have been introduced to Jeanette Winterson.
‘Sometimes I think of you and I feel giddy. Memory makes me lightheaded, drunk on champagne. All the things we did. And if anyone had said this was the price I would have agreed to pay it. That surprises me; that with the hurt and the mess comes a shift of recognition. It was worth it. Love is worth it.’
Next up, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I’m excited for the chance to finally get into some Vonnegut. I’ve been meaning to read something of his for ages, and now I have the excuse.
Recently read: Good Bones by Margaret Atwood (5/5), Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (3.5/5), The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (4/5), Switched by Amanda Hocking (2/5).
On The Reading Pile: The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Wicked by Gregory Maguire, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Cold Fire by Kate Elliott. Possibly not in that order.
What’s in your reading pile at the moment? Any recommendations?