by Jeanette Win­ter­son, 1987 Au­thor Char­lie Fletcher cel­e­brates an en­dur­ing his­tor­i­cal fan­tasy

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Char­lie Fletcher on The Pas­sion by Jeanette Win­ter­son.

I fell in love with Jeanette Win­ter­son by mis­take. I picked up her first book Or­anges Are Not The Only Fruit ex­actly 30 years ago, solely based on the strik­ing Pan­dora Press cover art (by Sue Slu­glett), and added it to a pile of other books I was buy­ing think­ing it’d be good to break out of my un­leav­ened diet of genre nov­els. I took a punt, think­ing that if I didn’t take to it in the first few pages, it would make a nice-look­ing present for a friend with a loom­ing birth­day. The fact I still have that edi­tion and can flip it to find the name of the il­lus­tra­tor tells its own story.

The Pas­sion, which she wrote two years later, is in ev­ery sense of the word a won­der­ful novel. Genre-wise, I can’t tell you where pre­cisely it sits on the spec­trum be­tween his­tor­i­cal fan­tasy and mag­i­cal real­ism, but I do know that it’s a true clas­sic of imag­i­na­tive fic­tion, a good tale, per­fectly told in two voices: that of Henri, the young sol­dier whose burn­ing love for Napoleon turns to hate on the cold road to Moscow, and of Vil­lanelle, cross-dress­ing web-footed daugh­ter of a Vene­tian boat­man. Their sto­ries take us all over the map of Europe, at the same time hu­manely and hon­estly chart­ing the smaller and more in­tri­cate to­pog­ra­phy of the hu­man heart.

Henri’s jour­ney takes him from the happy fields of his rus­tic child­hood to the fur­thest ex­tent of his hero’s im­pe­rial ad­ven­ture in Rus­sia, at which point the two strands in­ter­sect and head south to warmer, if not en­tirely hap­pier climes. The de­scrip­tions of the Grande Ar­mée’s suf­fer­ing dur­ing what he calls the “Zero Win­ter” have stayed with me, es­pe­cially the mem­o­rably hor­ri­ble im­age of a cav­al­ry­man who slits his horse’s belly to put his feet in for warmth, only to wake find­ing his horse has frozen round him and that his com­rades, un­able to free him, must leave him scream­ing in the snow.

The world of Vil­lanelle’s Venice is bought to life as a liv­ing, shift­ing, fugi­tive place – a wa­tery city that wears as many masks as its in­hab­i­tants. Vil­lanelle takes her boat through this place of mazes, tak­ing us into “the city within the city” where the rats run and the un­seen sur­vive. Thirty years later I have not shaken the im­age of the old woman, once rich, who lives on a wa­tery step draped in the rot­ting cur­tains she tore from her palazzo as she left, her hair now green with slime from the walls around her and wreathed with a crown of dead rats.

What I really love, be­yond the imag­i­na­tion, the com­pelling nar­ra­tive and the char­ac­ters whose fates you come to care des­per­ately about is some­thing much more mun­dane. I just like Win­ter­son’s voice, and two as­pects of it es­pe­cially: she uses plain lan­guage to evoke the most vi­sion­ary and un­worldly things, which makes those fan­tas­tic el­e­ments en­tirely real. And above all there’s a qual­ity of wild de­cency in her writ­ing. She’s imag­i­na­tively tough and un­com­pro­mis­ingly hon­est.

The Pas­sion stands up three decades later. On a re-read it seems dif­fer­ent, richer even. The things that broke my heart when I first read it don’t now. Or not as much. The ob­ser­va­tion that pas­sion is sur­viv­able doesn’t seem a be­trayal at all. It just seems part of the wider en­dur­ing gam­ble that is life. As Vil­lanelle says, “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.” As a reader, I’m glad Win­ter­son is still in the game.

It’s a short book. If you love read­ing – hell, if you just have a work­ing heart – read it.

The Para­dox, the lat­est book in Char­lie Fletcher’s Over­sight tril­ogy, is out now. He is also the au­thor of the Stone­heart tril­ogy.

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