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Written on the Body.

What do you call a woman who sleeps around? Men get to be Casanovas, they're never sluts. The perceived difference could be will vs. submissiveness: either you are in control and seducing the populace - or being used. This definition suggests that a man putting notches in his belt Saturday night after The Literary Event is clear about his motives, while the gal swinging off a lamppost with her bra strap showing is not. Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Rody debunks this formula with a female narrator who has had a lot of fun in greenhouses, canoes, and (other people's) conjugal beds, and is neither calculating nor clueless about her sexual desires - though they have just skidded to a glum halt in a passionless relationship (she "had lately learned that another way of writing FALL IN LOVE is WALK THE PLANK"). Like an old pirate telling his life story for the last time, the narrator spins a hundred tales of sexual adventure. The occasion for reminiscence isn't death, but a redhead.

"The wise old hands . . . don't imagine that to choose sensibly is to set a time-bomb under yourself," the narrator muses - and an explosion does occur when Louise comes on the scene, a married woman who looks good even while eating bread. ("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.") The smitten observer is never named and no gender-betraying pronoun or nomenclature is used in the book. For the first few pages I considered the possibility that the narrator might be male or female. I did not ricochet between genders for long. "Her legs. She never shaved them enough to keep them absolutely smooth. There was a residual roughness that I liked, the very beginning of the hairs growing back." A man could think this of his lover. . . .

As funny and sexy as it is, Written on the Body ultimately addresses the ethical dimensions of love. Ruminations and reminiscences accumulate but are no preparation for an agonizing choice facing the narrator. This book is a joy even in its most serious moments. Winterson's generous metaphors often extend the play between the physical and spiritual; that dalliance is thrilling here. "You tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body," the narrator croons. The body makes quite a love letter.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sheehan, Aurelie Jane
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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