The Books: “The PowerBook’ (Jeanette Winterson)

powerbook.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

The PowerBook, by Jeanette Winterson.

Ali is the narrator of The PowerBook. She is a storyteller. She sells her services online to tell stories for others. Any story you want. It can star you … or you can inhabit another story (the story of Lancelot, the story of Mallory on Everest, whatever you like) – you give Ali your qualifications, your desires, and she tells the story. She does warn you that you may come out the other end of the story – altered, changed. Stories are not benign or harmless – they have the power to change you. You may not be the same person. People are willing to pay, however. Fantasy is a powerful thing. And it takes someone who is a WRITER who can make a story come alive. There’s a bit of ego in this book (obviously) – and it is not clear at all that “Ali” is separate in any way from Jeanette Winterson, the writer. The voice is, as always Winterson’s voice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and there is much that is lovely and fanciful in this book.

From what I remember, there is one particular woman, out there in cyberspace, who keeps coming back for Ali’s stories. She re-invents herself time and time again. It is a shape-shifting universe, the universe of online romance and sex, you can be whoever you want to be. That is Ali’s job; to make it become real and alive.

My favorite parts of this book are the stories. You, as the reader, enter the different stories, and there are times when it seems they will go on forever. There is no way out. That is part of Ali’s warning to her customers. A story is a story. You can’t ask what you will “get” out of a story because the story has its own rules and has to go where it has to go. Ali makes no promises of a specific result.

Here is an excerpt. You can certainly see Winterson’s gift for romantic narrative here. She just goes for it. She is not cynical. She is not afraid of being hokey or overblown – because that is, indeed, how love feels like. At least in the beginning. I really admire that about her.

EXCERPT FROM The PowerBook, by Jeanette Winterson.

There is no greater grief than to find no happiness but happiness in what is past.

This is the story of Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo. You can find it in Boccaccio. You can find it in Dante. You can find it here.

My father’s castle is built of stone. The stone is thick as darkness. Darkness is to the inside what stone is to the outside of this castle; impenetrable, unscalable, a stone-dark, heavy as thought.

The dark stone weighs on us. Our thoughts bear us down. We roll the dark in front of us down the icy corridors, and in the rooms the darkness accumulates, sits in our chairs, waits. We wait.

The castle is a pause between dark and dark. It fills the space between a man’s thoughts and his deeds. My father made the design for the castle himself. It is as though we are living inside him.

Inside the castle, the furniture is black oak from Spain. In the one room where we keep a fire there is a long black table with candlesticks. At this table, for the first time, I saw Paolo.

Paolo il bello


My father Guido had long been at war with Malatesta, Lord of Rimini. A marriage was planned as a condition of peace, and Paolo rode in retinue to wild Ravenna to fetch me.

We lit the dark hall with candles, which forced the darkness off a little, made it crouch in strange shapes, like a thing whipped.

We dressed ourselves in black, my mother and I, for my father told us that every day is a day of mourning. I wore no adornment, but my hair is as loose and flowing as the cataract that roars under my window, and just as the cataract is tamed to the waterwheel, my hair is tamed to the braid, but both escape.

I bound myself as tightly as I could and went downstairs.

There was a curious light in the room. It was not the fire nor the candles nor the effect of the storm outside. I did not dare raise my eyes to discover the source, but walked mute and downcast towards the table, where my father presented me to Paolo.

I did not look up. I offered him my hand and he kissed it and placed a ring on my finger.

Through our meal my father talked only to the envoys and said nothing to Paolo or myself. I heard Paolo’s voice talking to my mother, and the music of it was like a flute or a pipe. I wanted to see him, but I had not the power.

At the end of our meal my mother and father and all the envoys and servants left the room abruptly. None of the dishes had been cleared and the wine was left spilt on the table. I could sense Paolo looking at me.

There was a low rumbling noise, like a scaffold being wheeled out, and from the shadow on the floor, I understood that a great canopied bed had been pushed into the room.

I did not raise my eyes, but my skin was as cold as wax.

I heard Paolo get up and, coming round to my side of the table, he took my hand and bade me stand up.

‘Francesca,’ he said, ‘let me see your breasts.’

I could not move, but his hands were sure as falcons and he soon had me pinned under him.

We lay on the bed and he kissed me – nothing more – one hand on my breast, the other gently stroking himself, until he felt my kisses meet his, and then he took my hand to where his own was active, and now freed, began to open my legs.

The pleasure was as shocking as the thought of pleasure.

The next morning, both dressed in white, we passed through the walls of my father’s castle as easily as ghosts. In my whole life I had never been beyond the shadow of the castle. The shadow-tip of the flag marked the limit of my walks and my own shadow followed me wherever I went.

Today was not like that.

Today was sun and sky and birdsong and open faces, and I blessed my father’s war, which had made this love.

As we rode, the light went with us. He was the light.

Paolo il bello.

My lover, my loved one, my love.


I need not tell how we passed our days as we rode in splendour along the coast. There was such lightness in me that I had to be tied to the pommel of the saddle to keep myself from bird height. I was bold as a starling. You fed me from your own plate. My eyes were always watching you. I thought you were one of the angels from the church window. We flew together, your wings in gold leaf from the sun. Time flew with us, and very soon we were in sight of your father’s lands.

I noticed a change in you – a dampening and a quiet that I did not understand. I thought you were ashamed of me, but you shook your head, your beautiful head like an angel, and asked me to wait.

I did wait. I had waited before now. Waited all my life, it seemed. ‘What is life,’ my father had said, ‘but a waiting for death?’

Then there were trumpets and running feet and crowds gathering and pennants and a team of white horses in silver harnesses and the white horses drew a carriage and in the carriage was a strange swarthy misshapen man, dressed all in leather, his fingers full of rings.

You turned to me and your voice was breaking as water breaks against a rock it cannot wear away.

‘That man is to be your husband,’ you said. ‘That man, my brother.’

Oh, Paolo, il bello, why did you lie to me?

Say you are lying to me now.

The wedding took place that afternoon.

My husband was scarcely four feet tall and as twisted in body as Paolo was straight. These things need not have been laid to his fault, but his heart was his own making and his heart was as unformed by kindness as his body had been neglected by beauty. He cared for nothing but hunting and women, and he lashed his dogs and his whores with the same strap.

The horrors of my nights with him might have been bearable if I had not been taught a different way. The grave of my childhood life and the grave of my married life might have crumbled into one another without distinction, if Paolo had not kissed me and raised me from the dead for those few wide-open days.

Then, months later, when my husband was away, Paolo came into my room. He suggested we might read together to while away the time, and this was approved with a short nod from my waiting woman who was paid to be my gaoler.

Every morning Paolo came to me, and we read together the story of Lancelot du Lac, and his love for Queen Guinevere.

We read out loud, and there were many pauses, many broken sighs and swift glances, and as we bent our heads lower and lower over the page, to scribe a perfect world, our cheeks met, and then our lips, and he was honey in my mouth as I kissed him.

There was no more time for reading that day.

You contrived it – oh, I don’t know how – to be together, along with our book, though we never turned another page.

Paolo, your love for me was a clear single happiness, and I would not give it up to save my soul.

He caught us. You know he did. Perhaps he trapped us. He might have done.

We were in bed together, naked, hot, Paolo inside me, when Gianciotto burst through the door with his men. I saw his face, triumphant, malign, and I saw him raise his terrible hand. He had a hand made of iron that he had fashioned into a spike. It was his hand that he ran through Paolo’s smooth back, and through into my belly and my spine, and into the flock of the mattress. The force was so great that it lifted him up and pinned him above us like a weathercock.

I put my hands to Paolo’s bleeding body, and he said to me, so that only I could hear –

‘There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet.’

He was dead then, and I dead under him, and hand in hand our souls flew down the corridors and out of his brother’s palace as easily as our bodies had done when we left my father’s house.

I have never let go of his hand.

We are as light now as our happiness was, lighter than birds. The wind carries us where it will, but our love is secure.

No one can separate us now. Not even God.

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1 Response to The Books: “The PowerBook’ (Jeanette Winterson)

  1. The Books: “Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles” (Jeanette Winterson)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf for the Daily Book Excerpt: Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, by Jeanette Winterson. Part of the ongoing Myths Series from Random House (which I adore) – Winterson takes on the myth…

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