The Passion is, at its heart, a meditation on passion - sexual, spiritual, filial and emotional. The story itself is a simple one set in Europe over the course of the Napoleonic Wars. The first chapter follows Henri, a simple French soldier who follows Napoleon with unquestioning faith. The second chapter introduces Villanelle, a Venetian woman who literally loses her heart. The third chapter unites these two separate threads and the fourth chapter ties them together. But far from being cliched or even predictable, Winterson weaves the narrative with so much of the surreal, the questionable and the casually fantastic that the reader ends up feeling caught in a strange sort of tapestry. Her style turns a seemingly simple story into a grotesque and beautiful fairy tale told through a looking glass.
While The Passion is worth reading for the language and imagery alone, I especially loved Henri's ruminations on the nature of passion - that there is no hate like the hate that comes from passion disappointed, that to be in love is to live one's life in the service of the beloved, that the beloved bears a mirror, and only in that mirror can the lover see himself. None of these ideas are new, but to read them in Henri's vulnerable, earnest voice, to think of them after the book is done and his fate completely known is a lovely, melancholy experience, one that I couldn't have hoped to understand as a young, inexperienced girl.
Ultimately, The Passion can be read in many ways - as a magical realism, a fairy tale, a literary experiment, even, if one squints, as a feminist track, although, looking back, I think that the only reason it qualified for a course in feminist lit., is because Villanelle genders-bends and loses her heart to a woman. The queer material is presented casually, very much not the express point of the novel except in that it illustrates the way in which passion neither respects nor requires restriction (honestly, the fact that Villanelle has webbed feet is given more narrative attention). That said, regardless of how you chose to read The Passion, regardless of where you place its weight, it is very much worth reading, if only as a doorway to ruminate on the role of passion in your life.