Written on the Body

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Any resemblance Written on the Body might have to the usual love story is eclipsed by Jeanette Winterson’s deft juggling of the English language. In Winterson’s hands, love—that most tired and well-worn of literary subjects—is pummeled, dissected, and flipped upside-down until the word itself rings new and unfamiliar. Love, make no mistake, is equal to such rough treatment. For Winterson’s characters, love is more likely to be gut-wrenching than gentle, life-shattering than uncomplicated. When it is profound and reaffirming, her characters often brace themselves for disappointment. Still, one cannot honestly describe love without giving its cliched aspects their due, observes the narrator of Written on the Body: “Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to each other is still the thing we long to hear? ’I love you’ is always a quotation.”

The first-person narrator of Written on the Body (whose name and gender are left unstated) is no stranger to love and its frequent attendants of sex, fatigue, late-night flights, mental distraction, and moral confusion. In fact, the narrator has just about bid good-bye to the more exhausting characteristics of love when love slams freight-train-hard again. Is it time to cling fast to comfortable, if predictable, companionship? Although the narrator solves that dilemma in about the length of time it takes to return another’s gaze, other questions quickly present themselves. How can love be measured? What sacrifices for one’s lover are worthy? These are the metaphysical partners with which this sexy, savvy novel dances. Written on the Body is a meditation—with a plot—if what one does and fails to do in the name of love.

In its structure, Written on the Body most closely resembles monologue. It is an examination of the past, told as the narrator languishes alone in a rented room, at the end of a long, dry summer when the lack of rain has left the grapes withering on the vine. It has not always been so for the narrator; she or he recalls other summers, lush and fertile, filled with mutual desire. The path between then and now, a trail strewn with single-minded romantics, male and female lovers alike, is what the narrator must traverse again to determine what went wrong.

The use of monologue is but one of several unusual narrative strategies used here. In the first short pages before the plot emerges and the book accommodates a more traditional structure, Winterson allows the narrator to address directly her or his great lost love, Louise. Yet the judicious use of “you” seems at times to be addressed to a larger audience, as if the narrator recognizes that others have lain where she or he has lain, that others have wielded soft phrases as “bullets and barter” too.

A chronology of love found and lost slowly begins to emerge from these memories of heavily armed forays into the deadly jungles of love. For the narrator, the story of Louise actually begins with Jacqueline, the woman with whom the narrator is sharing a too-calm life when Louise interrupts. The narrator recognizes the advantages of life with Jacqueline: “I had survived shipwreck and I liked my new island with hot and cold running water and regular visits from the milkman.” Still, Louise’s blood-red hair and Australian accent lure the narrator into setting sail again.

The tension between long-term faithfulness and feverish short affairs is very familiar to the narrator, given the number of married women who have been her or his lovers. “I’ve been through a lot of marriages,” she or he declares. “Not down the aisle but always up the stairs.” This time, though, the narrator recognizes the possibility of wholehearted commitment to Louise. In the past, the narrator might have begun the romance with Louise behind Jacqueline’s back; this time the narrator notifies Jacqueline of the new relationship. For her part, Louise chooses to leave cancer specialist Elgin Rosenthal, her husband of ten years, rather than conduct the affair with his tacit approval. Despite this mutual declaration of devotion, Louise still remains only too aware of the narrator’s Lothario past and instructs her sweetheart to refrain from saying “I love you” until the day when the narrator can prove that love.

Louise moves into the narrator’s apartment, and although they have very little money, they are “insultingly happy” for five months. Then, on Christmas Eve while Louise is off visiting her mother, Elgin unexpectedly drops by. Louise has cancer, he tells the narrator, and he wants her back as a wife and patient. The narrator is doubly devastated, first and foremost at the description of Louise’s asymptomatic leukemia but also at what Elgin is proposing. With Elgin, Louise could have access to the finest, most cutting-edge cancer treatments. As his wife, she could accompany him to the clinic in Switzerland where he conducts his research. Such early intervention might save her painful months of conventional chemotherapy. In return for this special treatment, however, the narrator must terminate the affair with Louise.

When the narrator confronts Louise with the news delivered by Elgin, Louise reacts by playing down her disease. She feels fine, she protests. She does not trust Elgin, as her husband or as her doctor. Yet the narrator sees only one way to save Louise’s life, only one way to act that is worthy of the love shared with her. The...

(The entire section is 2246 words.)