The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

Sarah, of A Devoted Reader recommended Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion to me when I was looking for books to read  in Venice (you can find my final choices here). I actually didn’t read it on holiday (I was a little ambitious with choosing five books to read on a long weekend!), and didn’t get round to reading it until recently. I think this was partly because I had the impression that it would be quite an ‘odd’ book and I wasn’t quite in the mood for odd books until recently. After reading The Castle of Otranto I thought it would have to work hard to be stranger than that!

And… The Passion is an unusual book, however having finished it I now want to read everything Jeanette Winterson has ever written. What an absolutely wonderful storyteller.

The Passion doesn’t really lend itself easily to a synopsis but I will try to give you a flavour of what it is about without giving the whole story away. It is a book made up of four parts and set during the Napoleonic Wars. In the first part of the story, we are introduced to Henri, a young man who has left his rural home in France to fight for Napoleon. In the second part, we meet the enigmatic Villanelle who is a Venetian boatman’s daughter. At night she dresses as a man and ventures into the seductive world of the Venice casinos.

The story is written in the first person in both instances which means the reader gets their unique perspectives. The reader travels with the characters over vast continents and share their thoughts and their passions.

Throughout the book, Winterson explores many different kinds of ‘passion’. First comes the violent and irrational passion of war-making, out of which she observes that victory is never ‘limited’, either because the loser of a battle will seek revenge or because the victor doesn’t know when to consolidate his gains, gambling even when he is in ‘profit’:

“Victors lose when they are tired of winning, the impulse to gamble the valuable, fabulous thing is too strong.”

Of course this idea of gambling and victory also applies to the passion between lovers whether requited or unrequited. I found Winterson’s discussion of love and passion beautiful and moving. She explores how passion can trap you in her leopard metaphor;

“You might reason that you can easily feed a leopard and that your garden is big enough, but you will know in your dreams at least that no leopard is ever satisfied with what it is given. After nine nights must come ten and every desperate meeting only leaves you desperate for another. There is never enough to eat, never enough garden for your love.”

She also shows the other side of the coin, how love can make a person free:

“To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free.”

The idea of passion is developed in so many places in the book even down to the simple pleasure of food, which is even more pronounced for the characters faced with hardship and a harsh environment. I really enjoyed how well this theme was explored and articulated.

Other things I loved in the book… the character of Villanelle. She is a strong woman, sometimes a saviour and also a whore. At times she is wildly feminine and at others androgynous. Her glorious red hair is an outward display of her passionate nature. Of course I relished the descriptions of Venice having fallen in love with it when I visited.

“This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day  and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you.”

“At midnight the bells ring out from every one of their churches and they have a hundred and seven at least. I have tried to count, but it is a living city and no one really knows what buildings are there from one day to the next.”

When I began reading The Passion I didn’t have a clue where it was going, but enjoyed the beautiful magical storytelling elements. I then felt rewarded with a tale that really fulfilled everything I could hope for in a real ‘story’. A fantastic piece of writing in more than one sense of the word.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read The Passion or any of Winterson’s other novels that you can recommend?

24 responses to “The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

  1. This was the first book I read by Jeanette Winterson as well, and like you, I absolutely loved it. Villanelle and Henri are both such well drawn characters, and I find her style of writing tremendously evocative. I suppose I don’t really read that many books written in the first person, but the characters both completely sucked me in. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

    I went on to read Oranges are not the Only Fruit – which is great, and I definitely recommend it – and Weight. The latter is part of the Canongate Myths series, so is quite short and easy to read, and it’s a really interesting and well-written version of the Atlas/Heracles stories. Also worth picking up!

    Written on the Body is next on my Jeanette Winterson to-read pile 🙂

    • I’m really looking forward to reading Oranges and will definitely keep my eye out for your other suggestions. I have a feeling a have found a new favourite author to add to my list!

  2. Susi (The Book Affair)

    I’ve heard of this novel, of all of her novels actually, but I’ve only read short stories by her. This review has now finally motivated me to go out and read one of her novels. ‘The Passion’, meet my TBR-pile!

    • I’m so pleased you’d like to read this too! It really is fab. I imagine her short stories are good too?

  3. Great review! It has made me want to rush to read it now straight off the shelf, though I shall stop myself as then I would just be copying you and we have had years of me doing that hahaha!

    I may very well read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fairly sharpish though as its been on my hit list for ages and ages and is the 25th anniversary this year so in a way its a classic, sort of.

    • I definitely want to read Oranges soon, so I may be copying you too 🙂 Definitely a good opportunity with it being the 25th anniversary!

  4. I haven’t read this one, although it sounds amazing, but I can’t recommend Lighthousekeeping enough; she writes beautifully, as always, and it is a unique and wonderful book, as all hers are. I would also second Jen in recommending Weight too.

  5. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages but for some silly reason, my library doesn’t have it. It has one of my most favourite quotes in it or at least I think it’s from the book (seeing I haven’t read it yet) – “Trust me, I’m telling you stories”. At the very least, it’s a quote from Winterson.

    I loved Oranges!

    • You should chastise your library for such oversight lol. That is from the book indeed it’s a great quote. How do you know it if you’ve not read it I wonder!!

  6. Great review, Polly. I read Oranges over 20 years ago (showing my age now 🙂 ) but I haven’t read anything else by her yet although I do have a copy of Sexing the Cherry on my shelf that I haven’t got round to reasing it yet.

    • So many books so little time. Actually I remember Oranges being on TV when I was younger and that it was quite controversial at the time. I think my Mum had the book and loved it which is why Winterson has always stuck in my mind as someone I’d like to read.

  7. Read “Oranges are not the only Fruit” 2 weeks ago, it inspires me to read everything that is written by Jeanette Winterson.

    She is such a brilliant, out of the norm Writer.

    • She definitely is. I’m glad it’s not just me. I feel as if I’ve made a wonderful discovery in Winterson’s writing!

  8. adevotedreader

    Glad to see another Winterson fan in the making!

    I agree she’s a magical, unpredictable storyteller, and would highly recommend Oranges are not the only fruit, Sexing the cherry and my favourite Lighthousekeeping.

    • Thanks for the recommendations. I think I could happily read any of her books so it’s good to have some ideas of where to start! A fan in the making is definitely right!

  9. I’m so glad that you enjoyed this, I have loved all of her books, each one is so different, as you say, she is an excellent story teller.

  10. lol, I also have a hard time imagining anything stranger than The Castle of Otranto. This sounds wonderful. The only Winterson I’ve read to date was Weight, the book she wrote for the Canongate Myth Series. I enjoyed it a lot and have been meaning to read more of her work ever since. Thank you for the reminder!

    • I really want to read Weight after all the comments about it. The Castle of Otranto is bizarre isn’t it?! I spotted another Walpole book yesterday at the community centre where I gave blood, and it had a beautiful cover but I think I’ll steer clear!!

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