The PowerBookis not a simple book, or an easy one. Easy to read, yes, easy to absorb, no. What at first seems a disjointed series of scenes adds up to an account of a classic affair, from first meeting to first fight to final decision, in all its tactile particulars. What at first seems merely a feat of authorial alchemy is in fact a carefully and cleverly plotted examination of the opposing forces that drive our lives. Winterson uses the metaphor of a funicular railway: “If the tension between the upward car and the downward car were to relax, both cars would crash through the red pantile roofs of the side-by-side houses and, collecting olive trees and grapevines as a memorial, the train and its passengers would career into the sea, nose first, broken backed, to join the other wrecks never recovered.” In the same way, she writes, “All of one’s life is a struggle towards . . . the narrow path between freedom and belonging.” And life moves forward on “the tug of war between the world I inherit and the world I invent.” Too much danger, love implodes; too much safety, passion withers.
The whole of The PowerBookoperates on a similar tension, between rumination and plot, introspection and action, which is what makes it involving despite its nonlinear meanderings. Winterson doesn’t dangle us over cliffs, teasing with what might happen, but instead holds us aloft in an ethereal world of shape-shifting perceptions, sensations we understand even as they slip out of the character’s grasp. She plunges down into the muck and tells us what it means that our families are disintegrating, that we are losing our sense of time, that the boundaries of our stories have begun to blur into one another. She reminds us, in a culture in which a pill keeps depression at bay and candles are burned for healing, that pain is a necessary function of a life well lived and fully felt. “There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet,” her narrator declares early on. Jeanette Winterson may have given up the public antics, but her written words still stir passions few writers even recognize.THE POWERBOOK | By JEANETTE WINTERSON | Knopf | 289 pages | $24 hardcover