Jeanette Winterson smudges the lines between reality and imagination in her novel, Sexing the Cherry. Based in seventeenth-century London, the story follows the lives of a large, feisty woman and her son. The woman, who has forgotten her own name, is known as the Dog-Woman due to the numerous dogs in her possession, and her son is called Jordan, who she fished out of the River Thames as a baby.
It is a strange novel, one that has you laughing out loud and stuck in deep thought at the same time. Winterson is incredibly original, and her prose simple and confident, which pushes you to believe in those smudged lines between reality and imagination. A small book, but one that is packed with fascinating themes, from sex and love to truth and history.
I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut because of the helmets. If I were up there on the moon, or by the Milky Way, I’d want to feel the stars round my head. I’d want them in my hair the way they are in paintings of the gods. I’d want my whole body to feel the space, the empty space and points of light.
The theme of empty space and points of light runs throughout the novel. It connotes freedom, hope and the chance to be oneself. Alongside this theme, Winterson also questions love and the truth of history. Nothing is definite and neatly shaped to be filed away in a category that is familiar to us. Even time moves in all sorts of ways in the novel, including sideways and not at all. Winterson does away with the concept that time is linear and instead “moves through us”, a malleable perception and one that is interchangeable.
Jordan is a traveller and is fascinated with discovery. He travels to familiar places, like Bermuda, but he also travels to wildly imaginative places, like the upside-down house that smells of wild strawberries. The difference between the two places isn’t defined in the novel as you glide seamlessly from one place to another. On his travels, Jordan searches for a woman called Fortunata, a dancer who may or may not exist. He meets her once and learns that she is one of twelve dancing princesses. She ran away from her husband and lives on an unknown island, teaching others to dance.
She told me that for years she had lived in hope of being rescued; of belonging to someone else, of dancing together. And then she had learned to dance alone, for its own sake and for hers.
…[She] read the inscription [on my medallion]. ‘Remember the rock from whence ye are hewn and the pit from whence ye are digged.’
She laughed. ‘What about your wings?’ she said. ‘How can you forget those when the stumps are still deep in your shoulder-blades?’
I didn’t say anything. In the Bible only the angels have wings; the rest of us have to wait to be rescued.
To untether ourselves from our beliefs, such as those surrounding sex, love, time and history, and set sail on our own is a daunting task, because there will be nothing to hold us down. Yet, to be released in the unknown is to have hope, for no one can predicate what may be discovered there, if only we allow ourselves to become empty space and points of light.
‘A Hunt in a Forest’, by Paolo Uccello c.1470