No 403 The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.

It has been well over twenty years since I read Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry in quick succession. I’m not sure why I never returned to her writing, but on the strength of The Passion, it seems that I have been missing out.

The Passion is a short, hypnotic and vibrant novel set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s tumultuous campaigns in Europe and Russia in the early 1800s. The Passion interweaves the stories and destinies of two remarkable characters. Henri, is a simple French soldier, whose sole job is to prepare chickens for Napoleon’s dinners each night. His passion for his leader leads him from war to inevitable war and from glory in France to frozen destitution in Russia.

Ah folly, but I think if Bonaparte had asked us to strap on wings and fly to St James’s Palace we would gave set off as confidently as a child lets loose a kite.

Meanwhile in Venice, Villanelle is the flame-haired, cross-dressing, web-footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, who makes her living as a croupier and pickpocket. Her passion is for a married woman, who has stolen her heart. Not figuratively speaking, she quite literally keeps it in a jar.

The pair meet in Russia, where Henri falls in love with Villanelle, deserts the army and, along with a defrocked Irish priest Patrick, they start the two-thousand mile trek back to Venice, that city of dreams and chance, where they will meet their singular destinies.

I am loathe to share any more of the plot of The Passion because much of the joy that comes from reading this book is its ability to continually surprise. Winterson’s writing is astonishing and the imagery she conjures is beautifully detailed. This is an historical novel only in so far as it is set within a specific historic time, but the story she creates has a timeless feel. It is a novel of magic realism but written in such a way as to illicit immediate acceptance from the reader rather than requesting a suspension of disbelief. She has a skill in creating deeply imagined characters and images with wit and grace.  

A pair of severed hands are framed on the wall of a gambling casino. A woman walks on water, her webbed feet allowing her to make her way through the canals of Venice. A heart is kept in a jar, Napoleon has a midget groom and a priest has a magic eye which can see for miles, through walls and into people’s homes. A sliver of gold remains frozen within an icicle that will not melt and passion, above all else, is the force that drives life onwards.

This is the central theme of the book. What do you love and more importantly, what will you risk for that love? Gambling becomes a metaphor for life, for what is life if not one long continuous gamble?

Gambling is not a vice, it is an expression of our humanness.

We gamble. Some do it at the gambling table, some do not.

You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.

Henri gambles his life initially on Napoleon and when that gamble fails, he plays again, this time gambling on Villanelle. Villanelle too takes her chances, with the mysterious woman that she loves, and a fat gambler to whom she owes a debt and upon whom her destiny depends. What draws this pair together is their openness to the game of chance, their willingness to make that bet in the hopes of winning, but aware of the probability of loss.

For all the beauty contained in Winterson’s writing, there is also pain and she doesn’t shy away from writing about the horrors of war. Her passages set on the frozen plains of Russia, where soldiers are wounded and starving, are as brutal as any war writing I’ve read. Just as vivid is her depiction of Venice, which she portrays as a dream of a city, a place of mazes, mirages and rituals, which can never be truly known, even by those who have lived there all their lives.

For such a short novel The Passion feels like it encompasses all the rich tapestry of life. The nature of passion itself – sexual, spiritual, and familial – is woven with both splendour and subtlety through the lives and experiences of Henri and Villanelle. Winterson deftly fuses the surreal with the worldly to create a brilliantly vivid tale that is undoubtedly an instant classic.


The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

27 Comments Leave a comment

  1. This was a very important book for me many years ago when I questioning my own gender. My favourite and, as fate would have it, the only one I read as a library copy. I’ve often wondered if it’s best left as remembered. I did read a number of Winterson’s early books but somewhere the interest waned. Or maybe I no longer needed them like I once had?


  2. It put me off her when she set fire to all the re-issues by Penguin Random House recently and slagged them off on Twitter – I mean, just speak to your publisher Jeanette, don’t have an online hissy fit!! Loved Oranges though, having said that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve only read her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (didn’t like it, thought she came across badly), her contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare retellings The Gap of Time (middling) and Written on the Body (loved it). The Passion sounds like it will fall into the loved it category.


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