Why have I never heard of Jeanette Winterson before? And why has it taken me so long to find her? This little unassuming book totally took me by the heartstrings and destroyed me. Now, it wasn’t Gaiman levels of destruction, but it still did a number.
The Passion follows Henri, a soldier in Napoleon’s army, and Villanelle, a remarkable woman from Venice as they weave a story back and forth that we aren’t sure whether we’re to believe at face-value, or take as metaphor. I can’t talk about the plot too much without absolutely ruining the wonderful surprises and moments this book offers, so instead we’re going to talk about Winterson’s amazing use of prose.
“Trust me, I’m telling you stories,” is a much repeated phrase throughout this novel, and Winterson wields it like a weapon. Just when we think we’re hearing the gospel truth, the paragraph ends with “trust me, I’m telling you stories.” She pairs this trust me/don’t trust me sentiment with historical settings and context that is at once brutally simple and enchantingly beautiful:
“There was no heat, only degrees of cold. I don’t remember the feeling of a fire against my knees. Even in the kitchen, the warmest place on any camp, the heat is too thin to spread and the copper pans cloud over. I take off my socks once a week to cut my toenails and the others call me a dandy. We’re white with red noses and blue fingers. The tricolor.”
Both Henri and Villanelle are enticing characters even though all we know about them are their observations of the world around them. Winterson is careful to give few physical descriptions outside of what’s absolutely necessary to make us love these characters. Reading her work felt like looking at an impressionist painting, quick strokes of description and plot that seem to make little sense on their own until you step back to look at the whole work, and all the little bits suddenly focus together for one quiet, beautiful ending.
If you haven’t read Jeanette Winterson yet, I highly recommend starting with The Passion.