Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Jeanette Winterson: Boating for Beginners


Oh, where to begin with this book? Let me start by saying that I loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (the beginning more than the ending), but I didn’t really get along with Winterson’s later work. This was several years ago. Now, I came across her short early novel, Boating for Beginners, in a thrift shop. Price tag: 2 euros. ‘Oh, well,’ I thought, ‘let’s see the first page.’

She had dreamed of martyrdom, her elegant profile jutting through the flames; she had dreamed of stardom, eager thousands trying to make their cheekbones just like her. At the very least she might have been a recluse, casting aquiline shadows across her unswept floor. Now, all these things were closed to her, and what was left? She was moderately intelligent, but not very, she had a way with animals, and she wanted to fall in love. She sat down and accepted her fate. Either she could be a secretary or she could be a prostitute. If she chose the latter there would be the problem of what to wear for work and how to arrange her hair (her recent experiments with ash-blond tint had left her threadbare – she should probably have mixed the powder with water instead of bleach).

‘I can wear a headscarf if I’m a secretary,’ she told herself. Then, a little sadly, ‘There’s no such thing as a bald prostitute.’

‘Not too bad for 2 euros,’ I thought. ‘I’ll take it!’

And I’m so glad I did. What I’d found was a little book brimming with irreverence and ebullience: a biblical parody of the Great Flood with a very – shall we say – unusual setting and cast of characters. The girl bemoaning her lack of purpose in life is the teenager Gloria Munde, whose mother, Mrs Munde, is working as a cook in the household of Noah, the enigmatic celebrity and opinion leader. Noah used to own a pleasure boating company, ‘Boating for Beginners’, but then went into business with God and became a celebrity. Together they wrote a bestseller titled Genesis, or How I Did It, and Noah’s influence grew:

He believed that the personal is political, bought up a national newspaper and began to attack the Nineveh Council for what he called ‘wanton and ungodly spending’. To a seeming majority his beliefs and vigorous social attitudes were a welcome relief. There was no need, after all, to be vegetarian, charitable and feminist. Noah promised a return to real values and, if possible, the Gold Standard; and he had the backing of the Unpronouncable who couldn’t be wrong because he was God. When the Glory Crusade got under way, Noah found himself leading thousands of people to the knees of the Lord. No one could resist a world where men and women knew exactly what they were doing and who they were doing it for; it made life simple and sunny again.

It would be tempting to assume this book will simply make fun of religion and conservatism, but that’s not the case at all. Boating for Beginners is, in fact, an astonishingly colourful, fast-paced, and beautifully flowing exploration of myth-making in action. Noah’s most important propagandist is a romantic novelist, and Northrop Frye, Frankenstein and Gone With the Wind all make an appearance. Likewise explored is the very randomness of rules for virtuous living: Noah and God are against frozen foods, refrigerators, and – especially – Black Gâteau cake. There’s a reason for this dislike, as it turns out; but in the character of Mrs Munde we meet a prosaic, middle-class woman, a frustrated astronomist, who finds a vent for her passionate (and misunderstood, even by herself) longing for greatness in her faith in this curious belief system that revolves around God, celebrities, romantic novels, fresh foods and open-fire cooking.

Anyway, Gloria is hired as a zoo keeper for Noah’s new project: a film about a great flood. God, as it turns out, doesn’t like the idea of a film; instead, he wants to do it for real. To tell anything more would be to spoil a book which is, after all, only 160 pages long – but suffice it to say that Boating for Beginners is just as much the story of misfits who have no place on the Ark.

‘We can do our best to warn people as soon as we can prove it, but what makes you think anyone is going to believe a zoo keeper, a transsexual and a member of the rich middle class?’

I’m sure some believers would take offence at this book, if only out of principle; but I personally find it impossible to see (no matter how hard I squint) any offence to be taken in a fictional universe where a biblical character tries to come up with religious justifications for a profitable fast-food chain (Hallelujah Hamburgers, anyone?) and where God started out as ice cream.

I could easily condense this review into one sentence: ‘Just read it – you won’t be sorry!’ I could just as easily fill this review with hilarious or interesting quotations, as there’s something quotable on every single page. But it occurs to me this book is actually a very fitting ending to the Comedy Week.

It’s fortunate that our dangerously emotional moments are often punctured by Gross Reality (one reason for the Shakespearean fool). The lives of fanatics are usually rather low on Gross Reality, which allows them to take their visions too seriously. Joan of Arc or Mary Baker Eddy might have found their personal lives less complicated if, say, either of them had had a bowel complaint or a passion for chocolate milkshakes.

References to this ‘Gross Reality’ come up at ‘dangerously emotional moments’ in this story, as well – and I find that ‘Gross Reality’ is exactly why this book is not only a hilarious parody, but a little strange myth in its own right. A humorous myth about human beings and their everyday myths, if you will.

A myth always contains its own parody. A tragedy that doesn’t acknowledge its humorous elements is nothing but silly posturing. I’ve always felt that there’s nothing more sad than a sad moment in a comedy: nothing closer to truth about the human condition than a (wo)man who wears both a crown and a fool’s cap, at once. Life is a curse and life is a farce; death is ridiculous and death is sad.

Nothing would be more divine then, surely, than a God with a sense of humour.

Vintage, 1990 (first published 1985), paperback edition. 160 pp. ISBN: 0749391510

7 comments on “Jeanette Winterson: Boating for Beginners

  1. Katie
    February 23, 2013

    Right, you’ve sold it to me! Have you read “Written on the Body”? Because I thought that was fabulous, although also have mixed feelings about JW’s later works.

  2. Jackie
    February 24, 2013

    What an unusual book! That’s a very catchy beginning and a unique idea for a story, which sounds amusing and off kilter. I’d really like to see how it all turns out & am going to look for this at the library.
    Thanks for the well done review!

  3. Kate
    February 24, 2013

    I love the sound of this. I teach Oranges and enjoy it more and more each year we tackle it in class, but something makes me nervous about JW’s other works. I don’t think I could be unnerved or bothered by this book, at least, not in a bad way.

  4. Clare
    February 24, 2013

    Very disappointed in ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ – a less-good rehash of OANTOF.

  5. Lisa
    February 24, 2013

    Great review. I read a few of Winterson’s books at uni and got a huge kick out of them. I think at that time of my life, they were exactly what I wanted and needed to read. This sounds like a terrific little book and I shall definitely buy it.

  6. Alex in Leeds
    February 28, 2013

    I was a Jeanette Winterson fan for years and this was the one I always tried to put in the hands of those who weren’t sure where to start with her, it always surprised and delighted them (‘it’s not at all what I expected’). I’m obviously due a re-read.🙂

  7. Pingback: Boating for Beginners | Blogging Around My Bookcase

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This entry was posted on February 23, 2013 by in Entries by Leena, Uncategorized.



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