Weight by Jeanette Winterson

22 November, 2012


Time had become meaningless to Atlas. He was in a black hole. He was under the event horizon. He was a singularity. He was alone.

After Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, I was wondering how Jeanette Winterson’s Weight would fare. Both are part of the Canongate Myth series and I had high expectations since the books I’ve read from this series have placed the bar pretty high. But we are talking about Winterson and she is as brilliant as ever.

In Weight, Winterson retells the story of the titan Atlas who, after his defeat in the war against the Olympian gods, has been sentenced to carry the cosmos on his shoulders for eternity. There is no one stronger than him and he is left to carry out his penance in solitude. There is only one other person who can lift the cosmos off him and that is Heracles, the demi-god, who happens to stroll by one day looking for a favour. He is in the midst of his twelve tasks, and one of them is to steal three golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides, once Atlas’ private sanctuary. And so they strike a brief friendship, quickly torn by Heracle’s duplicity and Atlas’ naïvete.

Winterson’s retelling of this myth muddles together the stories of Atlas and Heracles, moving back and forth from their past and into their future. She writes about the cosmos using modern scientific jargon and you may think this may jar but it all comes together beautifully. I’m partial to a bit of science and her fusing of myth and science opens up the universe and illustrates the important place of myth within the system of things. There is a playful, experimental handling of the tale, one that elevates simple storytelling to something epic. And all in a slim, poetic tome.

There is comedy in her portrayal of the uncouth Heracles, pumped up with machismo, who, while shouldering Atlas’ burden starts to think, something which worries the gods. It’s a new and uncomfortable sensation for Heracles too and he is relieved when he leaves Atlas.

The thought-wasp hardly stung him at all now. Only sometimes was there that buzzing discontent that made him want to tear his head off and discus it into space.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so put off by Heracles as I was when reading this book. It’s all drinking, fighting and sex with him. On the other hand, Atlas is a thinker, someone who has lived his life fully before having to give it up. His thought processes have become ascetic and enlightened as he sees the cosmos evolve. He is a watcher of time.

I can hear the world beginning. Time plays itself back for me…

As the dinosaurs crawl through my hair and volcanic eruptions pock my face, I find I am become a part of what I must bear. There is no longer Atlas and the world, there is only the World Atlas. Travel me and I am continents. I am the journey you must make.

But my favourite part of this book is the love story between Mother Earth and Poseidon, Atlas’ parents.

When my father wooed my mother she lapped it up. He was playful, he was warm, he waited for her in the bright blue shallows and came a little closer, then drew back, and his pull was to leave a little gift on her shore; a piece of coral, mother of pearl, a shell as spiralled as a dream.

Sometimes he was a long way out and she missed him and the beached fishes gasped for breath. Then he was all over her again…

Winterson inevitably injects a bit of her own now-famous story into this tale. But it fit in with the greater theme of the tale; the loneliness, the nothingness, our smallness in the universe. I liked it.

5 Responses to “Weight by Jeanette Winterson”

  1. mee Says:

    Wow I love your favorite part of the book too. Makes me really want to read it. I’ve never read Winterson’s books and have been meaning to forever. I should pick up one one of these days.

    • sakura Says:

      I’ve got a couple of hers on my shelf too and keep forgetting to read them. I really must because she has such a way with words. If you get a chance to see her talk, do because she is an amazing speaker and reads aloud her work so wonderfully.

  2. Hercules really is odious, isn’t he? I can’t like him. I enjoyed this book a lot however, despite H. – it was beautifully written.

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