Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Fine Art of Grafting

If the number of page points I stuck in Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry is any indication of how much I liked the book, well then I liked it very much. It certainly made me think. And I very much enjoyed the playfulness of the text as well as its humor.

The title does not refer to some sort of sexual slang or innuendo. It actually refers to determining the sex of a cherry tree. The fine art of grafting--a method of asexual plant propagation in which two plants are joined together--is at the root (excuse the pun) of what the book is about. Grafting is practiced for many reasons, one of which is hardiness. For instance, if you want a fruit tree or a rose that is not particularly hardy to your growing zone, you might try grafting. The root stock of a hardy version--for instance in MN I might choose a rugosa rose for my rootstock because it is hardy in below zero weather--becomes the base for a rose that is not very hardy here--a delicate tea rose perhaps. The resulting plant is a tea rose growing on the roots of a rugosa rose. The roses are tea roses and the plant is considered a tea rose. The grafted plant is two halves that require the other half in order to survive. The flower bearing canes of the tea rose need the hardy rugosa roots so it can survive the winter. The hardy rugosa roots need the energy and nourishment provided by the leaves of the tea rose. Cut the two apart at the graft and both halves will die.

What does this have to do with the book? Everything really. The book takes place in two time periods, London during the reign of Charles II, and the current day. And the characters, both Jordan and the Dog-Woman are alive in both. The book plays with time too, but that would require an entire other post to talk about. Sticking to the idea of grafting, the character of Jordan in old London and the character of Nicholas Jordan in modern London, can be seen as a graft. Which is the root and which is the plant is arguable because Jordan might be all in the imagination of Nicholas and Nicholas might be the part of himself that Jordan goes in search of.

It doesn't really matter which Jordan is what part of the resulting grafted plant. It only matters that together, the two halves make a whole. One can make speculations on the necessity of imagination for survival as well as the need to integrate soul and body, or the shadow self, or the practical self with the dancing part of the self. If the book can be said to have a plot, this, to me, is it: the journey to become a whole person.

There are so many elements in this book that make it interesting; time, as I mentioned, fairy tales, myth, and fantasy. There is also the element of the quest and the hero. It is a complex book that is written in a deceptively simple style. It is not without its faults. Some moments seem forced and the character of Dog-Woman is too educated for her class and station in life in many respects and too ignorant in others (can a woman who breeds dogs for a living really not know anything about sex?). But the faults are minor chaffings easily ignored in the overall scope of the novel.

Feel free to join in or follow the discussion at our new discussion forum.

Cross posted at So Many Books


Iliana said...

I was waiting for the part in the book where we got to explaining how the title came about! :)

I really enjoyed your take on this Stefanie. I feel like I didn't pay enough attention to this aspect at all.

Anonymous said...

Iliana, Thanks! I was waiting for an explanation of the title too! I was at first disappointed and couldn't figure out what the title had to do with anything. And I kept worrying over it in my brain until it finally all came together. What a relief that was too!