When I finished writing my paper on Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, sometime during my BA, I never expected that I would have to write about her again. This past fall, however, I found myself reading and enjoying her novel The Passion, and I included a brief discussion of this book in a post on what I was reading at that time. Now, for the second time in less than a year, I am writing about Winterson again, having discovered Tanglewreck, a children’s novel, while I was wandering the library with my children this past week. These little literary ironies never cease to amuse me.
I almost passed over the book, just from sheer laziness. Winterson’s name caught my eye from the shelf, but my immediate assumption was that there must be a second author by the same name, since I had never heard of Winterson publishing for children. It was not until I followed my youngest son down the aisle for a second time that I became curious enough to take the book down and discover who the author of Tanglewreck really was. Since it was the Winterson I knew, I borrowed it and read it last night in a single sitting.
Tanglewreck is a lovely little fantasy. It has something of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere about it in the parts that take place below the streets of London, and it has something of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series also, though perhaps I only feel this because it plays with time as Pullman’s series does. The narrative moves quickly, and the characters are entertaining, though, with the possible exception of the protagonist, a girl named Silver, they never really develop beyond the kind of charming stereotypes that make fairytales seem so familiar in their fantasy.
I was apprehensive at first, as soon as it became clear that the story would involve the manipulation of time, which I usually find is productive of nothing but incoherence and absurdity, particularly when it is combined with multiple universe theory, as it is to a small degree in this story. The disjointedness that time travel and multiple universe produce is the principle reason why I am never really able to enjoy Pullman’s novels, for example, despite his sometimes startling originality. In the case of Tanglewreck, however, Winterson manages to avoid some of these difficulties by refusing to provide a rational system to explain travel through time. She makes no attempt to have the time fluctuations appear realistic, using them in an almost metaphorical role, a comment on the increasing speed of our technological culture. Travel through time, as the sudden reappearance of the past or of the possible future in the present, becomes an image of how technological society’s insistence on measuring time, on being on time, on making the most of time, can be disrupted by the past and the future, which remind us of time that cannot be measured, of time in which we cannot be present, of time that we cannot make. As Winterson’s narrative voice says at one point,
“The river flows in one direction, but time does not. Time’s river carries our spent days out to sea, and sometimes those days come back to us, changed, strange, but still ours.”
To me, this seems to be, among other things, an apt justification for the genre that Winterson is using. I have always thought that one of the primary functions of fantasy as a genre, in its preoccupation with a mythical past, is to reintroduce a kind of instability into our perception of a manifest present. The importance of this function grows in direct proportion to our culture’s technical, scientific, and industrial capacity to construct the present as self-evident. The very genre of fantasy, therefore, brings back our days to us, changed, and strange, but still ours, and these days make our present strange also, so that we might learn to live in it differently.