BOOK REVIEW / Grazed anatomy: 'Written On the Body' -Jeanette Winterson: Cape, 13.99

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The Independent Culture
Jeanette Winterson sets out the theme of her new novel in its first sentence; why is the measure of love loss? This poses a problem for any reader who disagrees with her premise, the Romantic notion that we truly value something only when we no longer possess it. It may be that Winterson is edging towards a different truth - that it is easier to write about love when an affair is finished - but her opening leaves no room for dissension.

This degree of self-assurance is typical of Written on the Body, and a worrying feature of a novel which constantly seems to be doing something other than it claims. The concealed gender of the narrator is a tiresome conceit from a character whose contemptuous misandry hardly admits the possibility that she is anything but female; it will be interesting to see whether Winterson's translators, faced with intractably gendered Latin languages, adopt the ponderous circumlocutions necessary to maintain the pretence.

In an article for a new anthology, The Pleasure of Reading, Winterson writes of her discovery years ago that 'plot was meaningless to me' - that 'my love affair was with language, not with what it said'. This is reflected here, in a plot that consists of an unnamed narrator winning a married woman, Louise, and giving her up, without much of a fight, on being told that Louise has a form of leukaemia which only her oncologist husband can cure. 'I love you more than life itself,' the narrator begins her farewell letter to Louise, yet the latter is an insubstantial figure, characterised by little more than her beauty and tendency to utter such remarks as 'Never say you love me until that day when you have proved it.'

Winterson writes about Louise in a language drunk on its own richness, unable to distinguish between the sublime and mere showing off. Her first image of Louise suggests not a real woman but an idealised, psychedelic figure from a Sixties LP cover: 'If I were painting Louise I'd paint her hair as a swarm of butterflies. A million Red Admirals in a halo of movement and light.' This is not the only passage which conveys a sense of disjunction, of Winterson raiding a store-cupboard of cultural references and randomly adapting them. At the beginning of the affair, the narrator compares herself to the early saints setting out in a coracle, embarking on a perilous journey for the sake of love: 'Love hardened their hands against the oar and hefted their sinews against the rain.' Yet the image works only if you take it on its own terms, if you accept that it was love of God which motivated the early evangelists and not less elevated sentiments - fanaticism, bigotry, obsession.

This is another example of the way in which the novel undercuts itself, exposing feelings quite different from those it ostensibly describes. Its motivating force is not love but obsession, and the characterisation of Louise is so slender that she becomes a hook on which to hang the narrator's narcissistic self-examination. Fleeing into self-imposed exile in Yorkshire, the narrator chooses the life of an ascetic, boasting of its privations as though grief cannot properly be experienced in a suburban semi: 'The cottage had been long abandoned. No one wanted to live in it and no one else would have been stupid enough to rent it . . . It was dirty, depressing and ideal.'

Having established herself in this suitably desolate setting, she is ready to embark on the novel's ambitious central section, a 'love-poem to Louise'. Most people in love are convinced, temporarily at least, of the uniqueness of their love-object. What is remarkable about the narrator's love for Louise is that it celebrates not her particularity but what she has in common with everybody else. It is an anatomy lesson in which the narrator invades Louise's helpless leukaemic body, exploring her cavities like a surgeon and speculating on the ravaging effects of the disease: 'Will your skin discolour, its brightness blurring? Will your neck and spleen distend? Will the rigorous contours of your stomach swell under an infertile load?' At one point the narrator metamorphoses into an embalmer, preparing 'to hook out your brain through your accommodating orifices', to dissect Louise with 'a medical diagram and a cloth to mop up the mess, I'll have you bagged neat and tidy. I'll store you in plastic like chicken livers.'

This violent language speaks not of love but of rage and jealousy. Even Louise's return, at the end of the book, is expressed in a disturbing image - 'paler, thinner, but her hair still mane-wide and the colour of blood' - which emphasises her vulnerability and the hovering presence of death. Like The Passion, Winterson's clever, prize- winning novel, Written on the Body seeks to dazzle the reader with self-conscious brilliance but cannot conceal its cruelty, the bloody chamber behind its opulent facade.