All at sea with Mystic Meg

Jeanette Winterson's career has become a genuine tragedy says Felipe Fernndez-Armesto; Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson, Granta, pounds 15.99

Boy meets girl. Boy eats girl. In Jeanette Winterson's new novel, however, the villain's appetite fails him and his wife - or what is left of her - runs off with his former mistress, after plastic surgery, for a lesbian happy ending. At one level, this is an issues-novel, but the cannibalism-issue and surgery-issue are only raised in the last pages. And there are only three speaking characters, though a few others appear sketchily by way of recall.

The best feature is the economy with which the triangular relationship - husband, wife, concubine to both - is handled. So even with help from generous designers, the author needs a lot of padding to fill a short book.

Some of it - about 60 pages' worth - is provided by Winterson's familiar obsessions: tarot, lesbian analytics, the burdens of religious upbringing, father-fixation, the beastliness of men. The heroines reminisce tediously about their births and childhoods, like mixed-up novelists in therapy. This is good for maybe 80 pages more. There is a fair amount of straightforward tautology. A small but much-hyped contribution is made by allusions to the "Grand Universal Theory" trailed in the title: one of the lesbians works on antiquarks, but as the author's knowledge of the subject seems to be drawn mainly from The Physics of Immortality, she might as well be an expert on knitting or cookery.

Winterson reads theoretical physics with help from the tarot pack. She is an adept of post-scientific holism. Her efforts bear the same relation to physics as Mystic Meg's to astronomy. If her book were more readable, it would be suitable for serialisation in Good Housekeeping. "`Jove only works on superstrings because it reminds him of spaghetti', said Signora Rosetti": Jeanette Winterson or Jilly Cooper? "The hard-hat, bull-nose building blocks of matter...have to be returned as an infinite web of relationships": Jeanette Winterson or Tony Blair? Not only politicians mix cliches to mask clap-trap.

As always, Winterson shows she can use language deftly; but she is a wordsmith with nothing to say. Some of her strategic devices are clever. There is a genuinely intriguing sub-plot in which one of the characters is pursued by Jews intent on discovering a diamond secreted inside her against Nazi depredations. This helps keep the reader going through the stodgier passages of padding. Shipboard settings of various kinds are used at intervals to create capsule-like frameworks which can heighten drama or suspense. Disappointingly, Winterson's inattention to detail spoils these promising efforts: her ignorance of routine at sea makes ludicrous a crucial storm-tossed sequence on a small boat.

Like the science, the maritime motif becomes a maelstrom for the writer: she is obviously all at sea. The mystery of the diamond is made baffling by confused physiology. The denouement is a drearily extemporised deus ex machina.

There are some admirably amusing dialogues in the flip manner of Delano Ames but they fail to convince because the characters speak in barely distinguishable voices: short sentences, excised main verbs, metaphors tortured into daring compression. All fiction is autobiographical, but it is confusing for the reader if everybody in the book is based on the author. When we hear that one of the heroines is called Alluvia we wonder whether the whole effort is self-satire - a joke on critics disposed to take it seriously.

Jeanette Winterson is her own best critic. In this novel she confides that lesbianism is narcissism - lust for a mirror image. She seems to have lost the ability to stand back from her work, judge it dispassionately and discard the rubbish.

Her career has become a genuine tragedy - failure worked on ability by hubris. She could be a first-rate journalist, a slick stylist who knows a little about a lot. Instead, she has condemned herself to frustration as a novelist, in an art for which her talent seems exhausted.

There must be something, apart from tarot and lesbianism, which she could write about with deep knowledge and understanding. If she sticks to ships and physics, she is doomed to trip up over her own pretensions. Meanwhile, she imitates her characterisation of new physics, "belching at the dinner table of common sense".

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?