One of the privileges of maturity and distinction in the world of letters is the power to bestow accolades on younger writers. Such gestures are disinterested only in a materialistic sense. They are always interventions in literary politics, attempts to influence literary taste, rituals of succession, and they carry an intriguing element of risk for both parties. When Gore Vidal declares that the twenty-nine-year-old British novelist Jeanette Winterson is “the most interesting young writer I have read in twenty years”—words that her publishers predictably quote at every opportunity—one sits up and takes notice because he is laying his own literary judgment as well as her merit on the line.
Likewise, and for much the same reasons, such patronage could be a source of anxiety as well as encouragement for Jeanette Winterson. But one feels sure that the responsibility will not oppress her. The overwhelming impression of her work is one of remarkable self-confidence, and she evidently thrives on risk. The heroine of her latest novel is a croupier who sees life very much in terms of gambling:
Gambling is not a vice, it is an expression of our humanness.
We gamble. Some do it at the gaming table, some do not.
You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.
The Passion is Jeanette Winterson’s third novel, and about all it has in common with its two predecessors is a fondness for short declarative sentences and one-line paragraphs. Nevertheless, to respond to Mr. Vidal’s assessment of her talent it is necessary to consider her work to date as a whole. The first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, published in England in 1985 and in the US last year, was an episodic autobiographical novel of childhood and adolescence, familiar in structure but refreshingly distinctive in style and in the social milieu with which it deals. The heroine-narrator (called, with disarming transparency, Jeanette) is brought up in a working-class industrial community in the north of England by a dominating mother who belongs to a strict Pentecostal sect. The difficulties of growing up in a subculture so ideologically and linguistically out of touch with secular modern life are touchingly and amusingly rendered in the account of the heroine’s early school days.
I wanted to please [the teacher], and trembling with anticipation I started my essay…. “This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”
The teacher nodded and smiled.
“It was very hot, and Auntie Betty, whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”
The teacher began to look a bit worried, but the class perked up.
“But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”
“Is your mother a nurse?” asked teacher, with quiet sympathy.
“No, she just heals the sick.”
Teacher frowned. “Well carry on then.”
The strongest character in the book is the mercurial mother, who is in a constant temper with the irredeemably secular world around her and …