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I wish Winterson and Dickens could make a literary baby...
on January 26, 2006
The Passion is one of Jeanette Winterson's most acclaimed works, and is the first of her novels I've read. It is a slim volume, its cover peppered with accolades and glowing reviews. Words like "magical," "fairy tale," and "ecstasy" are the most common in these literary tributes. I found each and every one of them to be true, and yet in the end the novel was a strong disappointment. I have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz, and Cormac McCarthy; indeed, they are some of my favorite authors. While I found that her artful mastery of prose and her ability to deftly express the inner workings of the heart and mind to be similar to these authors, I found the story itself and its characters to be inconsistent, simplistic, occasionally weak, and even at times cliche.
The novel is set during Napoleon's reign, and the narrative alternates between the perspectives of Henri, a country-boy-turned-soldier in the French army, and Villanelle, a Venetian boatman's daughter and a worker in a casino. The novel begins very strongly in Henri's voice, but when the transition is made to Villanelle, I found the prose to be much weaker and the narrator's voice less distinct. When the two characters finally meet in Russia during the failed Napoleonic invasion, I felt their union to be anticlimactic and disappointing in its forced nature. Winterson's quest myth-like tale is severely undermined by the rushed nature of the book's progression, and the characters seem underdeveloped as a consequence. One of my greatest complaints, is that the narrative voices of Henri and Villanelle are too similar; they are not distinct enough to carry the reader through Villanelle's segments. I simply didn't care about her as much as I did about Henri.
Winterson's writing is gorgeous if occasionally flawed by inconsistency. She has a great ability to portray emotion and, yes, passion, and her characters' treatment of the heart's philosophy is reminiscent of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Much of what she writes about Napoleon and war are very strong and powerful, and one cannot help but wish that she had focused more on Henri's character for that reason. Her treatment of Villanelle is much weaker in my opinion, and it is in these passages that her prose includes the most awkward or cliche phrasing. The inclusion of Villanelle's female lover also weakens her eventual union with Henri for me; I feel that she failed to give any of these complex relationships enough of a treatment on their own, so that when they interact they begin to fall apart. In all, it is as if Winterson is uncertain herself as to what kind of book she wants this to be (historical fiction or magical realism) and who's tale it really is.
In spite of my dissatisfaction with the plot and the occasional eye-rolling at certain choices of language ("there is no pawn-shop of the heart" comes to mind), I will reiterate that the writing propelled my interest even when the characters were at times not able to. For this reason, I give the book three stars out of five; her excellent writing and musings on the nature of desire, madness, the archetypal home, and both figurative and literal gambling are on par with any of the great modern writers. In spite of her abilities, I was left disatisfied with what I felt could have been a much more mature (in the sense of growth, not attitude) and developed work. It is a quick read, however, and is a worthy investment if only for its thought-provoking passages and often gorgeous prose. Those seeking entertainment or escapism should look elsewhere.
~ Jacquelyn Gill