At the heart of this novel is the relationship of mother and son. The mother, the Dog Woman, may be larger than life (in every sense of the phrase) and her (adopted) son Jordan may be a teller of fantastic fables, but the relationship is very real, as is their love for one another.
When Jordan was a baby he sat on top of me much as a fly rests on a hill of dung. And I nourished him as a hill of dung nourishes a fly, and when he had eaten his fill he left me.
I should have named him after a stagnant pond and then I could have kept him, but I named him after a river and in the flood-tide he slipped away.
That sense of impending loss and then the loss itself will be familiar to any mother. It is this relationship which anchors this book in reality. At times the book is close to the fantasies of Rabelais, but the relationship pulls us back to reality.
The Dog Woman has to be one of the great creations of English literature - a giant of a woman, a bawdy, unapologetic murderess (there is no person dead at my hand who would be better off alive), but capable of tenderness towards the son she pulled from the River Thames as a baby. In the form of the Dog Woman Winterson turns the image of womanhood on its head and Dog Woman is still a woman. She is an active supporter of Charles I and sets about murdering Puritans, collecting their eyeballs, which she gives to her dogs, and their teeth, which end up in her watercress bed. It seems strange that such a rebel should support the king, but the author makes it clear that it is the Puritans' hatred towards the body and sexuality (and therefore of women) that the Dog Woman is fighting.
The other main narrator is Jordan. He is a poetic dreamer. His narration contrasts with the Dog Woman's earthiness in its fantasy and his retelling of fairytales. At the core of his narration is an interpretation of the Grimm Brothers' tale The Dancing Shoes. I found the section in which each of the twelve dancing princesses tells her story in a single page very powerful indeed. Far from being an interlude, it acts as an magnifying glass to the themes in the book. It is an excellent example of the use of fairytale in fiction.
Jordan leaves his mother to search for foreign worlds and their treasures, and to seek Fortunata, one of the dancing princesses. He finds her, but she will not return with him, thus allowing Jordan to remain the romantic rather than face the disappointment of married life, as narrated by the princesses. Jordan is always a seeker and admits that he is seeking himself: I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me.
The author has written that the book is a cross-time novel moving through time, but also operating outside it. The book opens with the following: The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time? And there certainly is a timelessness about the book. Nevertheless the Dog Woman and Jordan live in a well-drawn 17th century London, with the sights and smells (particularly the smells) of the time. I have written elsewhere of the use of magic realism in the portrayal of history. As Winterson says on her website: the past is strange.... There are as many narratives as there are guesses and this work is a good example of historic magic realism. For me the last part of the book, where the novel shifts its basis in time to the modern albeit with echoes of the past, doesn't work as well. I understand what the writer is trying to do, but it feels an add-on. Or maybe it's just that I am more interested in the Woman and her son.
So let us end with their relationship. One of the sadnesses in the book is the lack of articulation of their love and the misunderstanding this produces. Jordan says: I want to be like my rip-roaring mother, who cares nothing for how she looks, only for what she does. She has never been in love, no, and never wanted to be either. She is self-sufficient and without self-doubt…. I think she loves me but I don’t know. She wouldn’t say so, perhaps she doesn’t know herself. But we are party to the Dog Woman's thoughts: I wanted to tell him things, to tell him I loved him and how much I’d missed him, but thirteen years of words were fighting in my throat and I couldn’t get any of them out. There was too much to say and so I said nothing. Now that is a situation which is truly timeless.