When The Dog Woman finds a tiny child abandoned in the Thames mud in 17th century London, she adopts him and names him Jordan to always remember his watery origins.
And in the coming years, giantess and boy play their parts in history, from the English Civil War to the restoration to the plague and the Great Fire of London. And Jordan, with his need to roam, sets to sea as an explorer, bringing home the first pineapple to England and meeting fairy-tale princesses on the way.
Sexing the Cherry is an extraordinary and inventive mix. Jeanette Winterson mixes history and fantasy, fairy tales and magic realism in a boisterous and rollicking tale that bends ideas of time and physical reality.
And somehow it all works.
Unsurprisingly, given her own background (see Oranges are Not the Only Fruit), she uses the build-up to the English Civil War and the conflict itself to rail against puritans and religious hypocrites (who overlap here). And she turns conventional morality on its head as Dog Woman acts completely according to her conscience.
But the main themes here are that of finding the self and the nature of relationships: the sexing the cherry of the title is about grafting part of a plant onto another to make a new one. Here, Winterson seems to be saying that relationships make us whole.
Not that those relationships are always easy. Dog Woman and Jordan love each other deeply, but poignantly, neither is able to tell the other what they feel.
And Winterson also explores the idea of heroism and what constitutes it, starting with the 'heroism' of exploration in the 17th century, but also suggesting that there is a heroism in what women do too, as mothers and carers. In what's probably the weakest section of the novel, she brings the plot into the present to focus on environmental campaigners as heroic. It's a noble message, but it feels at odds with the rollicking, colourful, picaresque nature of what has gone before.
The prose is lovely – deceptively simple but with something close a poetic quality about it. And Dog Woman is a magnificent creation.
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable read.