Signal Boost: Women’s Voices #1 – the Passion

The other day on Facebook I pledged to go a month without reading any books by cis-men. I’m sticking to it, kinda. I decided I’d actually hear more voices if I made it a series of two-month binges. So for April and May it will be cis-women, because I’ve already started down that road. Then it might be trans writers, non-binary authors, writers of colour, and so on.

The book that actually inspired the idea was Patricia Highsmith’s excellent The Price of Salt/Carol, but I want to come back to discussing that one later. Partly so I can re-watch Todd Haine’s screen adaptation and compare, but mostly because the book I just finished completely overshadowed it: The Passion by Jeanette Winterson.

Jeanette Winterson looking very satisfied after apparently demolishing a stone building with a large stick.

You know how some books are laugh-out-loud or make you cry in public? This book is groan-with-pleasure-out-loud. Like, you know when you take a bit of some fancy food and it’s so delicious and surprising and rare that you actually cumgroan? I did that many, many times whilst reading The Passion. Actually, I did it at work today and I wasn’t even embarrassed until I remembered it just now.

Rare footage of me reading at work today.

The book is relatively slim at 160 pages, but Winterson is one of those writers who can make words ring with significance, so that just a few pages can create a whole world. Ellen Pall, writing in the New York Times in 1988, said of Winterson’s characters in The Passion “[they] are as vivid and haunting as figures in a dream.” I think that’s a good way to describe the whole book.

As well as the incredible prose and the effortless, rich characterisations, the book also has a wonderful plot. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say it dances gracefully over sexual awakening, carnal degradation, ghosts, gambling and excess in Vienna, the horrors of war in a Russian zero winter, a rich exile turned philosopherwitch on the banks of an underground river, folkoric tales of fishermens’ feet webbed to walk on water, and visions of Napoleon shoving whole roast chickens down his gullet.

The Passion is also peppered with insights and philosophical moments dealing with love, chance, fate, fucking, good and evil, time, and most of all passion. Coming as they do from very different characters, these insights are often in direct conflict.

Here’s an amazing passage that encapsulates so much of the suffering of war, and the strange passions that drive it:

A solid five star read, and one of those few books I can’t wait to read all over again!

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