Review by Candace Walsh
Hair is a lot of things to a lot of people. It can be lustrous, ringleted, blown out, windblown, extended, relaxed, permed, colored, ratted, knotty, braided, crimped, flipped, thinning, thinned-out, topknotted, cropped, and shorn. But at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, hair is dead. We walk around with dead stuff hanging from our living scalps.
Hair, as a fiction motif, is a memento mori. Not only is it dead, when it turns gray, it signals that we are closer to death. It falls out during chemotherapy. It also falls out when we are not ill, against our best interests or wishes. Detectives find hair, pick it up with tweezers, and bag it as DNA-containing evidence. It is found in beds. On sweaters left behind when we leave behind lovers. It puts us at the scene. It lets go.
In Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, hair is not just a motif, or a part of Louise’s physical description, or an evoker of her character, but a symbol that encompasses the theme of love and mortality entwined, and the plot point of Louise’s illness.
The gender-undefined narrator describes their lover Louise, at every opportunity, including Louise’s red, voluminous hair. Readers first encounter Louise’s hair in this sentence: “You are creamy but for your hair your red hair that flanks you on either side” (11). Here Winterson introduces the duo of colors, “creamy” and “red,” and uses these colors as a connection to Louise’s red and white blood cells, as demonstrated by the following passage, in which Winterson proximally links descriptions of Louise’s hair to her blood.
Her hair. A red blanket to cover us both. 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….I felt them with my feet, pushing my foot down her shin-bone, the long bones of her legs rich in marrow. Marrow where the blood cells are formed red and white. Red and white, the colours of Louise. (110)
Louise, the narrator and readers come to find out, has been diagnosed with a latent form of leukemia. This knowledge disrupts their love affair, not just emotionally but physically, because Louise’s estranged husband tells the narrator that he, as a cancer specialist, can offer Louise treatment that will give her the best chance of survival, but only if the narrator leaves Louise. The narrator, with great anguish, does so.
The narrator notices that Louise’s hair has a life of its own, even though, paradoxically, Louise’s hair is dead. Here Winterson enjambs a description of her hair as a swarm of butterflies with a description of Louise as a tree turned into a woman, its branches turned into her hair.
If I were painting Louise I’d paint her hair as a swarm of butterflies. A million Red Admirals in a halo of movement and light. There are plenty of legends about women turning into trees but are there any about trees turning into women? Is it odd to say that your lover reminds you of a tree? Well she does, it’s the way her hair fills with wind and sweeps out around her head….[H]er flesh has the moonlit shade of a silver birch.” (28–29)
In this passage, Winterson reemphasizes the two colors of Louise, red and white. Wind invisibly moves Louise’s hair in a way that creates an illusion that Louise’s hair is alive and able to move on its own. Winterson also connects Louise to both fleeting (butterflies) and long-lived (trees) aspects of nature. Nature also symbolizes timeless renewal. Linking Louise to nature animistically imbues nature with a soul, and infuses Louise, wishfully, with eternal life.
Winterson also uses a focus on strands and individual hairs to both characterize Louise and describe the body’s response to erotic desire.
Her hair was…falling forward on to the table-cloth in wires of light. There was a dangerously electrical quality about Louise. I worried that the steady flame she offered might be fed by a current far more volatile. Superficially she seemed serene, but beneath her control was a crackling power of the kind that makes me nervous when I pass pylons…. She was compressed, stoked down, a volcano dormant but not dead. It did occur to me that if Louise were a volcano then I might be Pompeii. (49)
Her hair “falling forward on to the table-cloth in wires of light” gives the narrator a pretext to complicate her description of Louise’s “steady flame.” A steady flame is pleasant, but not very exciting, like electricity, which can cause death by electrocution, and in case that’s too subtle, Winterson throws in a Pompeii reference, more connections to the love/mortality theme.
Winterson writes about how illness tempers the expression of desire in the following passage, using a hair reference to describe capillaries.
The leukaemic body hurts easily….We’ve bruised each other, broken the capillaries shot with blood. Tubes hair-thin intervening between arteries and veins, those ramified blood vessels that write the body’s longing. You used to flush with desire. That was when we were in control, our bodies conspirators in our pleasure. (124)
Ramify means “to send forth branches or extensions,” which reminds me of the earlier tree branches-as-hair reference. The first time I read this paragraph, I disliked that the meaning of the title was so wrapped up in the frailties of the body. I wanted to encounter it in a more luscious setting. But that would be counter to the book’s DNA. Re-reading it, I love that the book title is so embedded in a body process we know so intimately—the way the body’s circulatory system changes in response to feelings of desire, the way the circulatory system’s bodily response heightens feelings of desire, the way it can be visible, written on the skin. Love and mortality are never separate from each other because love is embodied and the body is mortal. Separation is an illusion. The distaste of holding them both consciously is related to fear of separation, with which Written on the Body also engages. The narrator leaves Louise, and agonizes, and misses her terribly, all with the hope of not incurring a greater loss, of Louise’s life. Even when Louise is remote, the narrator cannot escape from her. Longing takes the form of the landscape glowing with animism, its soul Louise’s, evoked by her red hair.
Is that why I seem to see it everywhere? I am living in a red bubble made up of Louise’s hair. It’s the sunset time of year but it’s not the dropping disc of light that holds me in the shadows of the yard. It’s the colour I crave, floodings of you running down the edges of the sky on to the brown earth on to the grey stone. On to me.…I would like to wrap my body in the blazing streaks of bloodshot sky….Do you see me in my blood-soaked world? (138–139)
Nature, blood, Louise, longing. I experience the power of the snowballing, extended metaphors and motif bodily.
After unsuccessfully looking for Louise in London, the narrator comes back to their house in the country, where a friend, Gail, is waiting, the fire lit. But! It turns out that Louise has hunted the narrator down and Gail has brought Louise to the narrator’s house, though the narrator doesn’t know this until…
Behold the last two paragraphs of the book.
From the kitchen door Louise’s face. Paler, thinner, but her hair still mane-wide and the colour of blood. I put out my hand and felt her fingers, she took my fingers and put them to her mouth….She’s warm.
This is where the story starts, in this threadbare room. The walls are exploding. The windows have turned into telescopes. Moon and stars are magnified in this room. The sun hangs over the mantelpiece. I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it’s getting late. I don’t know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields. (190)
Enter Louise, and her hair. The narrator compares it to a lion’s mane (nature) and blood (the body). Is she dead (mortality), a ghost? No, she’s warm. The narrator’s feelings, after she realizes she has Louise back, connect to the landscape. The force of her feelings brings the moon and stars into the room. Stretching out her hand allows her to “reach the corners of the world.” Because the narrator has been reunited with Louise, she now has, pardon the cheesy song reference, the whole world in her hands. “We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm.” The ongoing connection of Louise’s hair to aspects of nature, the elements, and geography means that when Louise returns, all of those things, instead of being reminders of the Louise lacuna, become the possessions of the narrator and the couple. The ending asserts that requited love connects you not just to another person, but to your place in and connection to the universe.
Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. Vintage International, 1992.
“Ramify.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ramify.
Candace Walsh is a rising third-year creative writing (fiction) PhD student at Ohio University. She holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. She is co-editor of Quarter After Eight and has was an assistant fiction editor at New Ohio Review. Her prose has appeared in Entropy, Craft Literary, Fiction Writers Review, New Limestone Review, Brevity, The Complete Sentence, and Pigeon Pages, among other publications. Walsh’s story, “The Sandbox Story,” was published in Santa Fe Noir by Akashic Books. Cleave, her novel in progress, was longlisted in the 2018 Stockholm Writers Festival’s First Pages Contest.