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The Passion - Jeanette Winterson

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      05.05.2008 17:37
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      A quaint fairytale with some novel (ha! pun) and elaborate touches

      Jeanette Winterson's Napoleon-baiting, androgynous ecstasy applauding, intertwining novel set in the times of Napoleon, "The Passion" has little connection to the real world. Written by Winterson in 1985, The Passion was her third book, after having already won the Whitbread award for her first novel "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit". It's a melodic and gentle story, which moves from page to page feeling very much like poetry, but without those annoying verses and rhyme-schemes.

      The book begins with Henri, a French kid who manages through dumb-assed luck and his midget friend Dominic to become Napoleon Bonaparte's personal cook. Following the great General through Russia, Henri encounters a number of strange people, such as Patrick, an Irishman who has a left eye like a telescope, who wisely realises that the best use for this magic eye is to watch girls undressing from miles away. There are many tales told, and as the French get further and further into Russia, they start to see the reality of war and realise how bad it all is, and that Naps himself is perhaps a tad bit barkingly mental. Henri decides to leg it... Previously, in Venice, a girl is born with webbed feet. This girl with a fantastical background grows up to be Villanelle, and she works in a casino dressed as a boy, as a card-dealer. One day she meets the mysterious 'Queen of Spades', who she falls in love with instantly. Although the Queen of Spades vanishes into the night, Villanelle holds out for a chance to see her again.

      So there you have the two basic stories, which - yes - eventually thread together and make a whole story. The Passion is set in the real world, although the book itself is more concerned with telling stories, and tales that should be impossible but in this world, can and do turn out to be true. There are many examples of this, such as the way in which Villanelle was born to have webbed feet - the result of a botched superstitious thing on a creepy island. There are other examples, but I'm not going to tell you them. One of the main themes in the novel is that of complicity and deceit, with Henri being perhaps the only truly honest character in the book (although even he starts to lose it towards the end). And yes, the second part of the book is essentially a lesbian love-story, but it's not essential to the story, and the romance is dealt with expressively but with restraint by Winterson. Tucked in among a whole heap of myths and fairytales, the central romance of the part seems entirely real, as is the fallout. The relationships forged are surprisingly involving, and it's very likely you'll find yourself rooting for Henri towards the end.

      The Passion is a short novel, split into four sections, and lasting for only 160 pages, it's a book you should take on holiday in case there's a tropical rainstorm (could happen) and you can't leave the hotel without being sucked into a tornado. It's not a book that will change your life, it's just something that will entertain you briefly in-between lightning strikes. There's not much of a plotline to the story, which enables Winterson to focus on her stories within the stories, the short fairytales which weave their way into the lives of the main characters. Throughout, her command of the language is apparent, and she moves effortlessly from describing the warm, sweaty, greasy nastiness of Napoleon's kitchens to the bleak cold landscape of Russia, where men die in their thousands every day. And then, she goes further, bringing in Villanelle in part two and creating a whole new world, a Venice where the supernatural twists into reality and nothing it really as it seems. Girls dress as boys, people literally lose their hearts when they fall in love, and it's impossible to take the same route through the city twice. It's a staggering place, and it's a shame she doesn't focus more on the surroundings as the book goes on, instead turning more to stories and the characters, who are intriguing but nothing new. The biggest problem with the book is that there is really a very thin plot threading everything together, which means that when plot devices do show up they seem like an unnecessary distraction from the enigmatic world they characters live in.

      I'm going to recommend the book, it's a nice thing, it's interesting and thought-provoking but it isn't something that will change your life, although it may make you feel like writing yourself. It's lyrical style means that every so often you'll find yourself looking back, reading the pieces just to enjoy how they're described and detailed. All in all, a good book. Nothing special - and make sure you don't read the tremendously pretentious blurb on the back - but involving and pretty and good-natured.

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    • Product Details

      Winner of the 1987 John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, this psychological fantasy is about two disillusioned young people who seek to revive their former passions. The book is concerned with gambling, madness and androgynous sexuality amidst the dark, deceptive canals of Venice.