Although one should never buy a book for its cover, I must admit that I was drawn to this book by the photograph on the front and by the title: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' Jeanette Winterson chose this title because it was her adoptive mother's response to the news that Winterson was gay - so the title might just as easily have been: `Why me? What have I done to deserve a daughter like you?' Speculation aside, I must say that whatever the title, I am glad that the author decided to write this memoir.
In 1985 Winterson published her first novel: `Oranges are not the only Fruit' and this novel was acknowledged to be partly autobiographical. It tells the story of a girl who was adopted in her infancy by Pentecostal parents. When I read `Oranges' years ago and found out that it was partly based on fact, I thought the worst bits were most probably the fiction parts- not so. Winterson's book tells us that her childhood wasn't quite as that depicted in `Oranges' - it was worse, and that she found it necessary to invent kind people like Testifying Elsie. She writes: "There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that".
This new book is full of wonderful stories, some funny, some very sad, some that must have been painful to write about. For the reader it may sound amusing to hear of Mrs Winterson striding past Woolworth's shouting "A Den of Vice"; past Marks and Spencer announcing that "The Jews killed Christ"; or marching past the funeral parlour and the pie shop saying "They share an oven" - but Winterson must have had very mixed feelings at the time. She goes on to tell us how Mrs Winterson was not a welcoming woman: "If anyone knocked at the door she ran down the lobby and shoved a poker through the letter box". Let's hope no one was looking through it at the time.
Winterson found refuge in the public library where she devoured books that she was unable to read openly at home; if she wasn't reading at the library, she would sit in the outside lavatory, or on the front step where she often found herself locked out overnight. When Mrs Winterson finds Jeanette's hidden cache of paperbacks, she burns them in the backyard. "F*** it" thinks Winterson, "I can write my own" - and the rest, up to a certain extent, is history. Winterson does well enough academically to get into Oxford, she gets her first book published and goes on to have a successful literary career. However that is not all. This memoir relates how Winterson falls in love with women, how her adoptive mother reacts to the knowledge that her daughter, instead of becoming a missionary, has become a lesbian and has paved her way to hell. We learn about Winterson's search for love and of her search for her birth mother and we learn a lot more in this honest, fierce, poignant and ultimately uplifting memoir. Wonderful.