Three individuals, carrying the name of more famous ancestors Handel ( George Frideric Handel -18th century Composer), Picasso ( of Guernica fame) and Sappho ( the Greek Poet from Lesbos lived around 600 BC) are destined to meet in a train compartment. Handel is a priest turned Doctor, Picasso, a young painter escaping her family, and the omnipresent poetess beyond the time and era. Adding to them is the presence of a forth person, in the form of a book being read, possibly a prostitute. Each of them are fighting their own past and their own future. The journey is only an escape to the unknown, there is no destination.
Handel, a surgeon, specialised in cancer, had an error in judgement. He operated the right breast , a wrong breast, instead of the left breast which was the right breast. But that wasn't the only reason, he is running away from all that is tormenting him. His troubled past, the images of his childhood at the seminary, in the protective hands of a Vatican priest, who used the young boy to his pleasure while imbibing him with the knowledge of the divine. Picasso, on her part was abused since childhood by her brother, and after attempted suicide ( or was it attempted murder by her father) and many years in the mental asylum, did not make her life easier at home. Sappho, has to bear the brunt of the entire womanhood for generations.
The book transcends time and place, though it is largely happens in the modern day London. On a alternating narratives, Winterson, weaves the story of the past or the present or the future in her rich prose. The abstract nature of the narration, makes it harder to decipher, but I guess, that was the point. Often sounds forced and pretentious, may not be appealing as her other books to many readers. The writing is very moving at many places, but this is more of a structural novel, with less importance to plot. However, as is believed in these part of the world, there is a an old connect between the participants. The doctor was involved in denying an abortion, and later delivery of the same kid.
The books is about art. "Two things significantly distinguish human beings from other animals; an interest in the past and the possibility of language. Brought together they make a third: Art." says Winterson. The names of the characters Handel, Picasso, and Sappho represent three forms of art ; music, painting and poetry.
Despite some moving narration, this book still sounds too clever and forced at times. Her strength is in her prose. While the general consensus on this book isn't all that great ( as I gathe from online reviews), I fairly liked the book in the end. Attempt was bold and different.
Art & Lies(1994)
Independent, Complete Review