A Historical novel quite different from any other...it is written with a living passion, an eyewitness immediacy....Winterson is a master of her material, a writer in whom great talent deeply abides.
New York of Books
The overwhelming impression of her work is one of remarkable self-confidence, and she evidently thrives on risk....As good as Poe: it dares you to laugh and stares you down.
The book has the enchanted pessimism of the best fairy tales. is a love story, a meditation on pleasure and its limits, a poetic novel written in a style that is wholly original.
Villanelle, the web-footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, is an exotic gamine whose odd, overlapping love affairs are doomed at the outset. As she spars with an aloof society matron in a complex, passionate, and ungratifying game of sexual masquerade, she slips into a concurrent and equally futile love/hate relationship with Henri, Napoleon's chef. Although Winterson has set her story in early 19th-century Europe, her writing style is incongruously contemporary and idiomatic. Despite the strangely fascinating plot, featuring a chillingly unexpected climax, the erratic and nearly incomprehensible structure in which the time period and the narrator's identity are often unclear make this novel irritatingly inaccessible. -- Ronald L. Coombs, SUNY Health Science Ctr. Lib., Brooklyn, N.Y.
From the Publisher
"An explosively imaginative writer." The London Free Press
"A historical novel quite different from any other...written with a living passion, an eyewitness immediacy.... Winterson is a master of her material, a writer in whom great talent deeply abides." Vanity Fair
"Recalls Garcia Marquez.... Magical touches dance like highlights over the brilliance of this fairy tale about passion, gambling, madness, and androgynous ecstasy." Edmund White
"The overwhelming impression of her work is one of remarkable self-confidence, and she evidently thrives on risk.... As good as Poe: it dares you to laugh and stares you down." The New York Review of Books
Read an Excerpt
Our companion loosed her laces but kept her boots on, and seeing my surprise at forgoing this unexpected luxury said, 'My father was a boatman. Boatmen do not take off their boots.' We were silent, either out of respect for her customs or sheer exhaustion, but it was she who offered to tell us her story if we chose to listen.
'A fire and a tale,' said Patrick. 'Now all we need is a drop of something hot,' and he fathomed from the bottom of his unfathomable pockets another stoppered jar of evil spirit.
This was her story.
I have always been a gambler. It's a skill that comes naturally to me like thieving and loving. What I didn't know by instinct I picked up from working the Casino, from watching others play and learning what it is that people value and therefore what it is they will risk. I learned how to put a challenge in such a way as to make it irresistible. We gamble with the hope of winning. But it's the thought of what we might lose that excites us.
How you play is a temperamental thing; cards, dice, dominoes, jacks, such preferences are frills merely. All gamblers sweat. I come from the city of chances, where everything is possible but where everything has a price. In this city great fortunes are won and lost overnight. It has always been so. Ships that carry silk and spices sink, the servant betrays the master, the secret is out and the bell tolls another accidental death. But penniless adventurers have always been welcome here too, they are good luck and very often their good luck rubs off on themselves. Some who come on foot leave on horseback and others who trumpeted their estate beg on the Rialto. It has always been so.
The astutegambler always keeps something back, something to play with another time; a pocket watch, a hunting dog. But the Devil's gambler keeps back something precious, something to gamble with only once in a lifetime. Behind the secret panel he keeps it, the valuable, fabulous thing that no one suspects he has.
I knew a man like that; not a drunkard sniffing after every wager nor an addict stripping the clothes off his back rather than go home. A thoughtful man who they say had trade with gold and death. He lost heavily, as gamblers do; he won surprisingly, as gamblers do, but he never showed much emotion, never led me to suspect that much important was at stake. A hobbyist, I thought, dismissing him. You see, I like passion, I like to be among the desperate.
I was wrong to dismiss him. He was waiting for the wager that would seduce him into risking what he valued. He was a true gambler, he was prepared to risk the valuable, fabulous thing but not for a dog or a cock or the casual dice.
On a quiet evening, when the tables were half empty and the domino sets lay in their boxes, he was there, wandering, fluttering, drinking and flirting.
I was bored.
Then a man came into the room, not one of our regulars, not one any of us knew, and after a few half-hearted games of chance he spied this figure and engaged him in conversation. They talked for upwards of half an hour and so intently that we thought they must be old friends and lost our curiosity in the assumption of habit. But the rich man with his strangely bowed companion by his side asked leave to make an announcement, a most remarkable wager, and we cleared the central floor and let him speak.
It seemed that his companion, this stranger, had come from the wastes of the Levant, where exotic lizards breed and all is unusual. In his country, no man bothered with paltry fortunes at the gaming table, they played for higher stakes.
The wager was a life. The winner should take the life of the loser in whatsoever way he chose. However slowly he chose, with whatever instruments he chose. What was certain was that only one life would be spared.
Our rich friend was clearly excited. His eyes looked past the faces and tables of the gaming room into a space we could not inhabit; into the space of pain and loss. What could it matter to him that he might lose fortunes?
He had fortunes to lose.
What could it matter to him that he might lose mistresses?
There are women enough.
What would it matter to him that he might lose his life?
He had one life. He cherished it.
There were those that night who begged him not to go on with it, who saw a sinister aspect in this unknown old man, who were perhaps afraid of being made the same offer and of refusing.
What you risk reveals what you value.
These were the terms.
A game of three.
The first, the roulette, where only fate is queen.
The second, the cards, where skill has some part.
The third, the dominoes, where skill is paramount and chance is there in disguise.
Will she wear your colours?
This is the city of disguises.
The terms were agreed and strictly supervised. The winner was two out of three or in the event of some onlooker crying Nay! a tie, chosen at random, by the manager of the Casino.
The terms seemed fair. More than fair in this cheating world, but there were still some who felt uneasy about the unknown man, unassuming and unthreatening as he seemed.
If the Devil plays dice, will he come like this?
Will he come so quietly and whisper in our ear?
If he came as an angel of light, we should be immediately on our guard.
The word was given: Play on.
We drank throughout the first game, watching the red and black spin under our hands, watching the bright streak of metal dally with one number, then another, innocent of win or lose. At first it seemed as though our rich friend must win, but at the last moment the ball sprang out of its slot and spun again with that dwindling sickening sound that marks the last possible change.
The wheel came to rest.
It was the stranger whom fortune loved.
There was a moment's silence, we expected some sign, some worry on one part, some satisfaction on another, but with faces of wax, the two men got up and walked to the optimistic baize. The cards. No man knows what they may hold. A man must trust his hand.
Swift dealing. These were accustomed to the game.
They played for perhaps an hour and we drank. Drank to keep our lips wet, our lips that dried every time a card fell and the stranger seemed doomed to victory. There was an odd sense in the room that the stranger must not win, that for all our sakes he must lose. We willed our rich friend to weld his wits with his luck and he did.
At the cards, he won and they were even.
The two men met each other's gaze for a moment before they seated themselves in front of the dominoes and in each face was something of the other. Our rich friend had assumed a more calculating expression, while his challenger's face was more thoughtful, less wolfish than before.
It was clear from the start that they were evenly matched at this game too. They played deftly, judging the gaps and the numbers, making lightning calculations, baffling each other. We had stopped drinking. There was neither sound nor movement save the clicking of the dominoes on the marble table.
It was past midnight. I heard the water lapping at the stones below. I heard my salvia in my throat. I heard the dominoes clicking on the marble table.
There were no dominoes left. No gaps.
The stranger had won.