Sexing the Cherryby Jeanette Winterson
In a fantastic world that is and is not seventeenth-century England, a baby is found floating in the Thames. The child is rescued by the Dog Woman, a murderous gentle giant who names her newfound trophy Jordan and takes him out for walks on a leash. When he grows up, Jordan, like Gulliver, travels the world, but finds that the strangest wonders are spun out of his own head. The strangest wonder of all is Time. Does it exist? What is its nature? Why does every journey conceal another journey within its lines? What is the relationship between seventeenth-century Jordan and twentieth-century Nicholas Jordan, a naval cadet in a warship? And who are the Twelve Dancing Princesses? With a story full of shimmering epiphanies, Jeanette Winterson again demonstrates the keenness of her craft and the singularity of her vision.
"Sexing the Cherry is fun, challenging, often astonishing. I wholeheartedly recommend it." The Toronto Star
"Read it and marvel. Jeanette Winterson's voice is startlingly poetic and original, and her imaginative feats are utterly dazzling." Cosmopolitan
"Jeanette Winterson is a remarkable writer." The Bookseller
"Reading Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry is like discovering a new dance. The rhythms and steps are innovative. The language often has a punch of a tabloid headline with the precision of poetry. And the idea of time—past, present and future—can turn on a dime." The Ottawa Citizen
"It simply needs to be read and re-read." The Times
"Simple prose shows the subtlest of minds behind it, swift, confident and dazzling." The Financial Times (UK)
"Winterson is a superb literary acrobat. She makes us believe, for the duration of her tall tales, in the power of imagination to change the way we perceive, and therefore live our lives." The Independent
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Read an Excerpt
My name is Jordan. This is the first thing I saw.
It was night, about a quarter to twelve, the sky divided in halves, one cloudy, the other fair. The clouds hung over the wood, there was no distance between them and the top of the trees. Where the sky was clear, over the river and the flat fields newly ploughed, the moon, almost full, shone out of a yellow aureole and reflected in the bow of the water. There were cattle in the field across, black against the slope of the hill, not moving, sleeping. One light, glittering from the only house, looked like the moat-light of a giant's castle. Tall trees flanked it. A horse ran loose in the courtyard, its hooves sparking the stone.
Then the fog came. The fog came from the river in thin spirals like spirits in a churchyard and thickened with the force of a genie from a bottle. The bulrushes were buried first, then the trunks of the trees, then the forks and the junctions. The top of the trees floated in the fog, making suspended islands for the birds.
The cattle were all drowned and the moat-light, like a lighthouse, appeared and vanished and vanished and appeared, cutting the air like a bright sword.
The fog came towards me and the sky that had been clear was covered up. It was bitterly cold, my hair was damp and I had no hand-warmer. I tried to find the path but all I found were hares with staring eyes, poised in the middle of the field and turned to stone. I began to walk with my hands stretched out in front of me, as do those troubled in sleep, and in this way, for the fist time, I traced the lineaments of my own face opposite me.
Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path nottaken and the forgotten angle. These are journeys I wish to record. Not the ones I made, but the ones I might have made, or perhaps did make in some other place or time. I could tell you the truth as you will find it in diaries and maps and log-books. I could faithfully describe all that I saw and heard and give you a travel book. You could follow it then, tracing those travels with your finger, putting red flags where I went.
For the Greeks, the hidden life demanded invisible ink. They wrote an ordinary letter and in between the lines set out another letter, written in milk. The document looked innocent enough until one who knew better sprinkled coal-dust over it. What the letter had been no longer mattered; what mattered was the life flaring up undetected...
I discovered that my own life was written invisibly, was squashed between the facts, was flying without me like the Twelve Dancing Princesses who shot from their window every night and returned home every morning with torn dresses and worn-out slippers and remembered nothing.
I resolved to set a watch on myself like a jealous father, trying to catch myself disappearing through a door just noticed in the wall. I knew I was being adulterous; that what I loved was not going on at home. I was giving myself the slip and walking through this world like a shadow. The longer I eluded myself the more obsessed I became with the thought of discovery. Occasionally, in company, someone would snap their fingers in front of my face and ask, 'Where are you?' For a long time I had no idea, but gradually I began to find evidence of the other life and gradually it appeared before me.
'Remember the rock from whence ye are hewn and the pit from whence ye are digged.'
My mother carved this on a medallion and hung it round my neck the day she found me in the slime by the river. I was wrapped up in a rotting sack such as kittens are drowned in, but my head was wedged uppermost against the bank. I heard dogs coming towards me and a roar in the water and a face as round as the moon with hair falling on either side bobbed over me. She scooped me up, she tied me between her breasts whose nipples stood out like walnuts. She took me home and kept me there with fifty dogs and no company of her own.
I had a name but I have forgotten it.
They call me the Dog-Woman and it will do. I call him Jordan and it will do. He has no other name before or after. What was there to call him, fished as he was from the stinking Thames? A child can't be called Thames, no and not Nile either, for all his likeness to Moses. But I wanted to give him a river name, a name not bound to anything, just as the waters aren't bound to anything. When a woman gives birth her waters break and she pours out the child and the child runs free. I would have liked to pour out a child from my body but you have to have a man for that and there's no man who's a match for me.
When Jordan was a baby he sat on top of me much as a fly rests on a hill of dung. And I nourished him as a hill of dung nourishes a fly, and when he had eaten his fill he left me.
I should have named him after a stagnant pond and then I could have kept him, but I named him after a river and in the flood-tide he slipped away.
When Jordan was three I took him to see a great rarity and that was my undoing. There was news that one Thomas Johnson had got himself an edible fruit of the like never seen in England. This Johnson, though he's been dead for twenty years now, was a herbalist by trade, though I'd say he was more than that. When a woman found herself too round for her liking and showing no blood by the moon, it was Johnson she visited with only a lantern for company. And when she came back all flat and smiling she said it was Mistletoe or Cat-nip or some such, but I say he sucked it out for the Devil.
Nevertheless, it being daylight and a crowd promised such as we see only for a dog and a bear. I took Jordan on a hound-lead and pushed my way through the gawpers and sinners until we got to the front and there was Johnson himself trying to charge money for a glimpse of the thing.
I lifted Jordan up and I told Johnson that if he didn't throw back his cloth and let us see this wonder I'd cram his face so hard into my breasts that he's wish he'd never been suckled by a woman, so truly would I smother him.
He starts humming and hawing and reaching for some coloured jar behind his head, and I thought, he'll not let no genie out on me with its forked tongue and balls like jewels, so I grabbed him and started to push him into my dress. He was soon coughing and crying because I haven't had that dress off in five years.
'Well, then,' I said, holding him back, the way you would a weasel. 'Where is this wonder?'
'God save me,' he cried, 'a moment for my smelling salts, dear lady.'
But I would have none of it and whipped off the cover myself, and I swear that what he had resembled nothing more than the private parts of an Oriental. It was yellow and livid and long.
'It is a banana, madam,' said the rogue.
A banana? What on God's good earth was a banana?
'Such a thing never grew in Paradise,' I said.
'Indeed it did, madam,' says he, all puffed up like a poison adder. 'This fruit is from the Island of Bermuda, which is closer to Paradise than you will ever be.'
He lifted it up above his head, and the crowd, seeing it for the first time, roared and nudged each other and demanded to know what poor fool had been so reduced as to sell his vitality.
'It's either painted or infected,' said I, 'for there's none such a colour that I know.'
Johnson shouted above the din as best he could...
'THIS IS NOT SOME UNFORTUNATE'S RAKE. IT IS THE FRUIT OF A TREE. IT IS TO BE PEELED AND EATEN.'
At this there was unanimous retching. There was no good woman could put that to her mouth, and for a man it was the practice of cannibals. We had not gone to church all these years and been washed in the blood of Jesus only to eat ourselves up the way the Heathen do.
I pulled on the hound-lead in order to take Jordan away, but the lead came up in my hands. I ducked down into the shuffle of bare feet and torn stockings and a gentleman's buckle here and there. He was gone. My boy was gone. I let out a great bellow such as cattle do and would have gone on bellowing till Kingdom Come had not some sinner taken my ear and turned me to look under Johnson's devilish table.
I saw Jordan standing stock still. He was standing with both his arms upraised and staring at the banana above Johnson's head. I put my head next to his head and looked where he looked and I saw deep blue waters against a pale shore and trees whose branches sang with green and birds in fairground colours and an old man in a loin-cloth.
This was the first time Jordan set sail.
Meet the Author
A novelist whose honours include England’s Whitbread Prize, and the American Academy’s E. M. Forster Award, as well as the Prix d’argent at the Cannes Film Festival, JEANETTE WINTERSON burst onto the literary scene as a very young woman in 1985 with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Her subsequent novels, including Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, Written on the Body, and The PowerBook, have also gone on to receive great international acclaim. She lives in London and the Cotswolds.
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Jeanette Winterson is one of the finest contemporary authors. This, her third book (unless you count Boating For Beginners), is the first real stretching for her. The narrative used in this book is original and fun, but also there are some meaty little things to think about here. If you've never read Jeanette Winterson's work, start with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and work forward (it's really cool to see her develop). If you've read other works by her, this is another great book to read!