Updated on August 5, 2018
28. ‘Weight’ by Jeanette Winterson
A couple of weeks ago, the good people at Canongate sent me #TheMyths series – a beautiful collection in which major authors retell popular myths. Weight is the first one that I picked up, partly because it had planets on the cover (!), and partly because I love Jeanette Winterson.
As with many of Winterson’s stories, there is a thread of autobiography woven through Weight. We read the tale of Atlas, the history of titans warring with gods, and his punishment to hold up the weight of the world for all eternity. We also learn about Winterson’s own past, her adopted parents, and the way she used stories to escape when her life was unhappy or uncertain. As ever, Winterson analyses the very idea of ‘story’ itself, weighing up ‘reality’ against ‘fiction’, and examining how layers of story build up like sediment. Of course, this whole book plays with the idea of story – this is a retelling, and this myth has only survived because of retellings. Why do we keep returning to it, century upon century? How does it shape us now?
“Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself. My girlfriend says I have an Atlas Complex.”
That’s a lot to pack in to such a tiny book, but Winterson does it with style. Her writing is sparse and beautiful. She can provoke multiple layers of thought with just one sentence. I don’t understand how she does it – she writes like nobody else I know.
Weight isn’t all philosophy and literary-ness. There is also an intriguing story and some fantastic characters. Atlas himself is long-suffering, resigned and tender-hearted. Heracles, who temporarily takes the weight of the world and then tricks Atlas into taking it back, is swaggering and laddish. He’s a rapist and a murderer, of course, but Winterson turns him into a sometimes hilarious, self-important dude who, at heart, is deeply afraid of his own thoughts. Atlas and Heracles make up the heart of the story, and they complement each other perfectly.
One thing I loved about this book was how Winterson carried the ancient myth of Atlas into the modern day. He’s there holding up the sky all the way through history; humanity’s first satellites buzz around his head. He meets Laika, the first dog in space. Winterson weaves science with her myth; she talks about the Big Bang and the ISS. Weight lives up to its title, as weight is compared with lightness, boundaries with the vast openness of space. Ultimately it’s about the stories we carry with us, how they bear down on us, and what happens when we let them go.
This is another must-read from a master storyteller. It will take you no time at all to read it, but you will carry it with you for a long time afterwards.
“I took up the burden of the whole world, the heavens about it, and the depths below. … This is my monstrous burden … And my desire? Infinite space.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Weight here.
[Disclosure: Above is an affiliate link. If you buy a book through that link, I get a small cut, at no extra cost to you.]