Those who have read Jeanette Winterson before may not be surprised by Sexing the Cherry. Those who haven’t, or who have only read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (as I had) may wonder what on earth they have got themselves into. It is a weird story, a surreal experience, and it is meant to be so.
In Sexing the Cherry Winterson celebrates the power of the imagination. Much of the book is the extended flight of fancy of the hero Jordan. He takes the reader to the magical places he visits and introduces us to the characters he meets. These passages read like short stories and are reminiscent of the darkest, most dangerous fairy tales. Winterson also explores the nature of time and asks complex questions about the meaning of time, its constraints and whether it really exists at all. It’s just enough to make your head go slightly gooey but not so much as to be painful.
The story leaps across time and viewpoint although there is a linear plot trundling along underground. It follows the lives of a mother known as the Dog Woman and her adopted son Jordan, living in Britain during the reign of Charles I and, consequently, under Cromwell. The Dog Woman is a force of a nature, an impossibly huge woman, violent, and dangerous but with heart of gold. She is a masterful creation, the sort of character who can do terrible things and you still cheer her on wholeheartedly. The historic element is also particularly fun. Winterson touches on the civil war, the death of King Charles and subsequently Cromwell and the despised puritans. She gives her own explanation for the Fire of London and describes the plague in ghastly detail.
Unlike his mother, Jordan is a dreamer and a traveler. It’s he who takes us on fantastical journeys. In one of the most enchanting passages I have ever had the pleasure to read, Jordan travels to a land where people’s conversations clog up the sky and must be swept up by cleaners with brooms lest they block the sunlight. We also hear the story of twelve rather unconventional princesses. They might be living happily ever after but certainly not with the twelve princes they were forced to marry. I’ll put it this way — the princes got what was coming to them.
I feel obliged to add a health warning here — there are only two decent male characters in this book. The rest are rapists, murderers, puritans, and more often than not, sexually depraved. Be prepared for some graphic description and a few pages of unrelenting, gruesome revenge. But don’t let that put you off. Somehow Winterson pulls it all off with a tongue-in-cheek jauntiness.
I have no doubt that this type of story is divisive. For some people it will be too odd, too random, too unnecessarily grim. But others will enjoy the ride and detect deeper, more sentimental notes to the story. In the Dog Woman’s relationship with Jordan the idea of motherly love and the difficulty of conveying emotions is treated with surprising sensitivity. The reader feels these emotional struggles as they would in a more traditional novel.
I didn’t enjoy Sexing the Cherry in the same way as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The latter will always hold a place in my heart that Sexing the Cherry will not. And yet I would urge any fan of magical realism to give Sexing the Cherry a go. It’s certainly a surprising addition to the genre, gaudy, irreverent and elegant all at once.