Author: Jeanette Winterson, 1989.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Post-Modern. Magical Realism. Re-told fairy tale. Feminist. Surrealism.
Other Details: Paperback 144 pages.
“The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division doesn not exist. What does this say about time?” - opening of Sexing the Cherry.
Set in a fantastical world that both is and isn't seventeenth century England, this short complex novel recounts the story of Jordan and Dog Woman, a giantess who raises dogs by the Thames.
As a baby Jordan had been set adrift in a basket on the river but was rescued and raised by Dog Woman. Set against the events of the time, including the execution of Charles I and the Restoration, the novel explores the powerful bond between this unlikely mother and her adoptive child as well as Jordan's later voyages with John Tradescant as they seek out botanical curiosities. Along the way Jordan is caught up in a personal quest to locate an elusive dancer, one of the Twelve Dancing Princesses of fable.
When this was selected for our library reading group I had expected reading its back cover blurb a conventional work of historical fiction. I soon found myself surprised and enchanted when it turned out to be such a rich, fantastical tale. I loved the integration of the story of the twelve dancing princesses as well as the historical perspective of the period, which was sketched so well despite the slenderness of the novel. Moving between the narratives of Jordan and Dog Woman, Winterson's writing is exquisite and inventive.
I could see the influence of 16th century French author Francois Rabelais in the characters, especially of Dog Woman, who seems a direct descendant in literary terms of his Gargantua. Also, its broad satire, ribald humour and the integration of philosophical ideas evokes early novelists. It is a bold, memorable work that is also challenging in its reflections on love, sexuality and the nature of time, space and reality. Its complexity meant that it did take longer than I expected and actually I ended up reading it twice to really get a proper grasp of its themes; the first time for the reading group and then a month later when I bought my own copy. I can certainly imagine re-visiting it in the future.
I will mention that although I loved it, it wasn't well received by some members of our reading group who were put off by its surrealism, preferring a more traditional narrative.
Sexing the Cherry on Jeanette Winterson's site - includes some background and excerpt.