BOOK REVIEW / Just time for one late score: 'Art and Lies' - Jeanette Winterson: Jonathan Cape, 14.99

JEANETTE Winterson takes as her structural model for this book the trio from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, reprinting the score at the end as if it were closing titles music. She has three main characters: Handel, a celibate priest and cancer specialist who performs mastectomies; Picasso, an artist and victim of repeated fraternal rape, who is now rejecting her family; and Sappho, who is, Winterson argues, as truly Sappho in this fantastical representation as in any other writing about her. The three have separate voices, but intertwining themes; and though there is little plot, they do all finally meet on a train.

The blurb on the jacket tells us that Art and Lies has 'musical power': 'its events, emotions, thoughts and moral forces are brought into collision and directed towards a single end that is linked to the unfamiliar beginning with satisfying inevitability'. This is an oddly limited definition of 'musical power', and in practice Winterson goes somewhat further, but it is true that the book's main strength lies in its gliding surface and broad movements.

Winterson wishes to demonstrate that what ignorance or prejudice may choose to define as dissonant - lesbianism, prostitution, mutilation, celibacy - will cease to seem dissonant if it is resolved into a coherent pattern. Her concerns with gender, imposed identity and voice, for example, come together with precision in the shape of a castrato. Her movement from one voice to another is also frequently deft, and includes pages from the book of a bawd, Doll Sneerpiece, which recur at intervals to provide a delightful and cogent sidelight on the more elevated troubles of the main characters. Sets of themes - marriage, fittingness, severed parts - fold neatly into one another, no matter how inherently jarring.

Winterson writes well enough, enough of the time, for the reader to be drawn into the flow of the book despite its unpredictable current, and there are certain moments where, as she would say, her writing takes wing: 'Outside, the graceful yellow fountains of the arc welder threw down the light into the oily pavement puddles. The light struck off the welder's metal boots in glowing chips. He wore his halo round his feet.' There are also, however, short rants about 'dead' people, and philosophical gobbets that leave one absolutely cold. Winterson takes old chestnuts - words / things, words / sex, the myth of progress - and minces them into meaningless particles - even the do / be problem, as if she has never heard of Frank Sinatra.

More arresting still are the intermittent passages of third rate writing. The book's self-declared 'shocking' beauty asks us to read it with the sort of attention usually reserved for poetry, but, irritatingly for all concerned, the reader is likely to stop and consider most closely the very places where the writing is weakest. Winterson's lyricism sometimes seems more than anything like an overwrought paraphrase of a poem by someone else. 'What contains me? Fear, laziness, the opinion of others, a morbid terror of death and too little joy in life. I am shuttered in at either end, a lid on my head, blocks under my feet. The stale self unrhythmed by art or nature.' If there is music here, it rings false.

Winterson argues for artificiality - art and lies both standing as analogues for 'fiction' - but she doesn't deliver what she promises as a reward, namely an uplifting sense that she has revealed truth within it. Musical transitions and borrowed or perpetuated strengths are essential to her style. She distorts and echoes anything from the Psalms to D H Lawrence; her characters change voice, gender and grammatical person; there are passages in foreign languages; a musical score to be read, and even stumping references to previous novels by Winterson herself. This makes for a potent soup, but hardly a potent argument, Bible-flavoured, with oil of obscurity, Shakespeare extracts and an infusion of ideas: we are meant to drink this down and find our souls on fire, but it is hard to swallow. Winterson, quoting AC Bradley, tells us that a work of art should be 'a world in itself'. The world she creates here is at once impassioned, airy and faintly deadening.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect