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Books: The tour guide's defence

THE WORLD AND OTHER PLACES by Jeanette Winterson Cape pounds 14.99
THE DISCOVERY OF an unexpected Afterword in the last pages of this collection may soothe the bemused reader, or simply infuriate. The journey there, through 17 stories of Jeanette Winterson country, has not been easy. Many of the places visited exist only in the author's imagination and are described in a variety of voices from a vast range of perspectives. Moving from one to the next requires some stamina, a willingness to leap from dreams, through eroticism and whimsy, to fairytale and science-fiction. So many changes of climate and landscape promise a magical mystery tour, but the changeable character of our guide does not induce trust. Her onwards rush through moments of love and loss and cruelty allows no pause for reflection, nor any chance to admire more than the multiple writing personality.

Jeanette Winterson's six published novels have attracted their share of loyalty, dismay and fierce debate. But despite all their chameleon- like differences, the quality of her writing has remained constant: precise, fluent, perfectly judged. This collection is another refinement of that art, studded with metaphors and unexpected asides. A farmer's daughter "had a heart like a tractor to pull any man out of himself"; the god Orion's reputation hangs about him "like bad breath"; and the night sky is "a black cloak pinned with silver brooches that never need polish".

Yet despite such richness, some stories seem incomplete, more like pages ripped from a writer's notebook. Others, like the homoerotic "The Politics of Sex", read like the stock from which "Written on the Body" has been made. But no matter how unsatisfactory, even the most alien pieces like "Disappearance 1" are illuminated by the author's quirky ideas about life in a Big Brother future: when sleep is decreed illegal in a 24-hour working day, ducks in the public parks die from overfeeding and holiday resorts become Sleep Designated Areas "where everyone went intravenous for a fortnight".

Readers in hope of a more familiar Winterson world might make their search easier if they started at that Afterword. Here is the didactic voice from earlier work, the tone slightly defensive, the words less picked over and polished. The tour guide has been sent back to the hotel by the travel company to explain earlier glitches and offer vouchers and excursions. So instead of the expected briskly professional tone, we are addressed as intimates: we learn that she wrote these stories over a period of 12 years, beginning soon after her first novel was published in 1985; that the left-wing press are not her supporters though "nowadays they pretend to have loved my every line ... when I could write"; that the work is not arranged in chronological order and some have appeared in publications as diverse as Elle magazine and the Independent; that Bill Buford "loved and wanted to violate in equal measure" the story he commissioned for the New Yorker; and that another written for the American Express magazine was rejected with "a very cross note" because "it did not reflect the lifestyles or interests of their readers".

Having paid off those scores, Winterson adds an afterthought about content, especially her fascination with the journey or quest, "which is the search after Self that marks the shape of all my work without exception". And perhaps that is the problem. The Selfhood of Jeanette Winterson is hers alone, and a journey into her heart or imagination can seem as unsatisfactory as an account as someone else's holiday. However, having reached the end, the reader may pause to reflect on the compass of Jeanette Winterson's mind. And surveying the extraordinary patchwork of this collection from the safety of home, can only admire the distance covered and the appetite for exploration.