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Review: The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson
For Winterson stories are not just stories, and life is not just life; they are both writes Durre Mughal

The PowerBook
by Jeanette Winterson
Vintage, 256pp

Written at a time when the Internet was a fascinating but dangerous new phenomena
and full of huge possibilities, The Powerbook seeks to take the reader anywhere in
time. The narrator, Ali, has set up shop in cyberspace and sells stories through a
series of email interactions. She offers “Freedom just for one night” to her customers
allowing them to forget who they are and take on a new persona anywhere from the
past to now. Yet all these stories are about ‘Great and Ruinous Lovers’ like Guinevere
and Lancelot, Tristan and Isolde, Paolo and Francesca. It is through these interactions
that Ali meets her lover, who keeps coming back for more stories. Soon the reader is
whisked off to Paris, Capri and London as slowly the line between storytelling and
reality seems to blur as the dialogue becomes more interactive between the two lovers
and more detail is given of their surroundings.

The book’s first edition – the one that Winterson had any say in at all – is designed
to open like a laptop. Chapters open with computer symbols and commands such
as “VIEW AS ICON” that put the reader under the impression of reading a computer manual. The first chapter begins with symbols of male and female chromosomes ‘X’ and ‘Y’, character defining ways which can be completely discarded and changed around in
cyberspace. Identity can be discarded and reconstructed, even gender. But the writing
itself also has a lyricism in its tone as Winterson repetitively emphasizes the universality of passion and feeling. This will either hammer the point home for some while switching others off.

The plot is arguably another one of Winterson’s that is all too familiar; a woman falls
in love with another woman who is married and must make that ultimate decision of
whether to leave her husband for her lover. Winterson’s own lesbian identity is the
driving force behind this as well as her never-ending concerns with gender, sexuality
and love. But what she seems to want to point out is that all stories are the same and
have been told before, and so it is not what you tell but how you tell it. For Winterson
stories are not just stories, and life is not just life; they are both interlinked and define
each other. The novel – if it can be called that – is carefully constructed. The stories
being told are tied together cleverly into the structure of the greater plot that seems to
almost become a subplot due to the overwhelming force of Winterson’s storytelling
technique. Only the writer has any power in this book despite the impression that the
title gives off of a DIY manual. The book itself though is an easy read even with its
fragmented narrative. What will no doubt resonate in the reader’s mind afterwards is
the way in which Winterson uses technology as a tool to ornately rework some well-
known stories and incidents across different cultures and history.

Durre Mughal is a young writer based at Cardiff Metropolitan University.