Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, 1992
Published by Vintage
First line: “Why is the measure of love loss?”
Book Rx: Because it’s worth it. Love is worth it.
My copy of Written on the Body is brown along the edges and noticeably worn, as all much-loved books are. It’s covered in brittle slightly-yellowed plastic, a remnant of the days when I used to cover all my family’s books without being asked. (I found book-covering, along with other repetitive tasks like gift-wrapping, a soothing activity.)
The flyleaf has my high school ex’s signature on it and a date. I can no longer remember if the book was given to me or if I borrowed it and never gave it back. My husband (bless him) didn’t say no to me using the book in our save-the-date video (the concept’s execution turned out well in the end, thankfully).
Written on the Body was the first Winterson I had ever read. I knew nothing about her back then. I recall the mild, pleasant surprise at discovering I might be reading about two women (“That is how I came to rent the attic floor of the Pimlico Women’s Institute…”) — a thought I just as quickly brushed away in my mind as I progressed through the story. It was an irrelevant detail, if you will.
Because at its core, Written on the Body is simply a love story: about one particular love (the narrator and the beautiful red-haired Louise), the narrator’s many past loves, and about love itself. I found myself identifying with both the narrator and Louise in equal measure. Winterson writes with such intensity sometimes reading her makes me blush:
When she lifted the soup spoon to her lips how I longed to be that innocent piece of stainless steel. I would gladly have traded the blood in my body for half a pint of vegetable stock. Let me be diced carrot, vermicelli, just so that you will take me in your mouth. I envied the French stick. I watched her break and butter each piece, soak it slowly in her bowl, let it float, grow heavy and fat, sink under the deep red weight and then be resurrected to the glorious pleasure of her teeth.
It’s not all intense; the book has its light moments:
I had a boyfriend once called Crazy Frank. […] Frank had the body of a bull, an image he intensified by wearing great gold hoops through his nipples. Unfortunately he had joined the hoops with a chain of heavy gold links. The effect should have been deeply butch but in fact it looked rather like the handle of a Chanel shopping bag.
The latter half of the novel is a “love-poem” that might interest doctors everywhere. The narrator goes over, in agonizing excruciating detail, the physical bits and bobs that make Louise Louise, as the narrator tries to come to terms with her lover’s illness.
“I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid. I would recognise her even when her body had long since fallen away.”
More than a decade after first reading it, Written on the Body remains one of my favorite books. It was the first of many Wintersons I’ve since bought and read, the book that turned me into a Winterson fan-girl. (So much so that I sometimes imagined, back when I was living in the UK, what I would do if I saw Winterson on the Tube. I would probably spazz out.)
For laughs here’s a tiny photo of dorky high-school me immersed in a younger, cleaner copy of this book, circa 2001.