“Winterson is unmatched among contemporary writers in her ability to conjure up new-world wonder…A beautiful, stirring and brilliant story.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
First there is the forest and inside the forest the clearing and inside the clearing the cabin and inside the cabin the mother and inside the mother the child and inside the child the mountain.
So opens Gut Symmetries. Brilliant.
Jeanette Winterson is a spectacularly good writer; her style experimental and unconventional, but always with purpose. She is not affected. She writes to destabilise our assumptions, and then places her very real and human stories in a world where we are questioning everything.
In this case, reading Winterson immediately following Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, I felt like Julia Donaldson’s little old lady in A Squash And A Squeeze. For those of you not familiar with this seminal reference work of literary criticism, a little old lady is concerned by how small her house is, so takes in a hen, a sheep, and various other animals, so that when they all leave, her house then feels lovely and spacious.
For most of the first half of My Name Is Red, Pamuk gives you nothing in the way of a conventional narrative to hold on to and orientate yourself in the story. Winterson is much more considerate to her reader; if Pamuk’s writing is the equivalent of a full menagerie stuffed house, Winterson leaves you with just the hen (and maybe an occasional visit from the sheep too in some passages!) She treads the line between a challenging writing style, and a heartfelt depiction of the realities of the human condition, beautifully. Or maybe it’s not a line at all; maybe the reason her characters and their relationships get us right in the gut is precisely because she makes us vulnerable by pulling the rug of familiar writing conventions out from under us, and then hits us with the sucker punch of real people living real lives.
No response to a book can be objective; but it is interesting to consider how our experience of it is affected not just by how and where we read, but also what we read before and after. If I’d read this straight after Bridget Jones’s Diary, for example, this would probably be a very different review.
But, safe to say I love Winterson. Irrespective of whose company she is in. The last two books of hers I read, The Daylight Gate and the autobiographical Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? were both outstanding. Knock your socks off brilliant.
So, I had high hopes for Gut Symmetries. And it didn’t disappoint. This is a book that explores the very fabric of the universe. Literally. The repeated quote from Robert Oppenheimer:
If we ask whether the position of the electron remains the same we must say no. If we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say no. If we ask whether the electron is at rest we must say no. If we ask whether it is in motion we must say no.
sets us in a world of shifting, contradictory theoretical physics where there is no such thing as a reliable reality. Within this world, Winterson tells a surprisingly conventional story of three people. We find out who their parents were, and what their childhoods were like. The older man has an affair with the younger woman. So far, so familiar ground. The twist ostensibly comes when the man’s wife and his lover meet, and also fall in love. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler as it’s revealed early on that this is where the story is heading). But this is also where Winterson lost me slightly. I found much of the story of this three-way relationship to be oddly sexist. Jove, the male protagonist, is pretty foul: self-absorbed, unkind, and petty. The two women, Stella and Alice, whilst flawed, are much more pleasant company. I loved Stella in particular, the flame-haired poet with a diamond at the base of her spine.
Jove’s place in the story is privileged by Stella, Alice and by Winterson herself. She describes more about his work than either of women’s for example. Stella and Alice both feel emotional ties to Jove, but I found it difficult to understand why they tolerate his bad behaviour once their connection to each other becomes so much more meaningful; why he continues to dominate the narrative well past his sell-by date. I was willing Stella and Alice to ride off into the sunset and leave him in their dust from about halfway through the book. It jarred that three intelligent women keep him around for so long when he seemed surplus to requirements.
Having said this, Jove does form an interesting counterpoint within the story, and seeing Stella through his eyes brings one of my favourite descriptions in the book:
My wife believed that she had a kind of interior universe as valid and as necessary as her day-to-day existence in reality. This failure to make a hierarchy, this failure to recognise the primacy of fact, justified her increasingly subjective responses. She refused to make a clear distinction between inner and outer.
Nail on the head. Despite its framing in the disparaging, Winterson wonderfully depicts a state I am genuinely jealous of. Something I have reflected on since my rereading of Wuthering Heights, and realisation that Bronte was able to write the best book the world has ever seen precisely because she lived more in the inner than the outer. Her lifetime of investment in the interior universe of her imagination paid off spectacularly in that case.
And for each of us, every book we read becomes part of our ‘inner’. I, for one, enjoy failing to recognise the primacy of fact.
Gut Symmetries is a good book that ends brilliantly with scenes of real gothic that are very much my cup of tea. Whilst not my favourite Winterson (which would be a tall order indeed) it is a worthy addition to my interior universe. And I would recommend you add it to yours.
Added 5th April 2016