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.
9 out of 10
Have you read The Passion or any of Winterson’s other novels that you can recommend?