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.
on 26 April 2012
Jeanette Winterson tells us that she found words, through reading and writing, that let her examine and understand her childhood; she hopes still, through psychotherapy as well as through reading and writing, to find words that will let her examine and understand her adulthood. Words, analysis, metaphor also provide distance. They are the mirror in which JW wants safely to view the basilisk that she can not directly address.
The book is a memoir with two halves. The first is an account of JW's childhood (her adoptive mother, Constance Winterson, was savagely religious, and unhappy) from which JW escaped through literature, initially as an avid reader, then through university studies, and latterly through writing. The second is an account of JW's own adulthood unhappiness and of how through work, love, and a search for her birth mother she has attempted to manage that unhappiness. The halves are hinged by a few pages on JW's time at the University of Oxford.
The first half, the account of the misery of fifty years ago, is worn smooth by much handling, polished into anecdote and well-crafted. JW has successfully distanced herself from that misery by assembling a narrative. Emotion dominates the second half, which is gabble; sometimes ungrammatical, palpably raw, and not yet mastered. JW deploys therapists' jargon and recounts fables in an attempt to create a narrative, an accounting, for her adult unhappiness. She does not succeed. The literature that let her escape from her childhood now allows her to escape from confronting that unhappiness. The myths and metaphors stave off her misery rather than explain it.
The child in distress relies upon her mother to relieve the distress, to fix what is wrong; the adult understands that life can not be fixed, only lived. JW's mother acknowledged and embraced her distress, her unhappiness, saying: To be human is to be unhappy. She accepted that in sin (as the story of Adam instructed her), man has separated himself from God; death is one consequence, sorrow is another, and life is a vale of tears. Happiness in the narrative that she chose comes only after death, through reconciliation with the divine. JW believes, I think, that happiness should be the human condition. But she intuits that she is shut away from happiness -- not realising, it seems, that each of us is, at least from time to time! -- and flails about, enraged, when happiness eludes her, demanding that she be made happy.
The memoir of the monster-mother is published again and again; different mothers, differently monstrous, but the child always unable to emerge from enthralment. JW's memoir of her life after university, depicting her search for someone or something that will "fix" her unhappiness, encountering disappointment, responding with anger, and searching vainly again, shows JW, at book's end in the thrall of both her adoptive mother and her birth mother, as a failed adult.
This memoir is, then, the mirror that JW has made. It reflects Constance Winterson, yes (who as a mother surely was a horror); but it more sharply reflects JW, who does not yet comprehend that, in adulthood, she is her own basilisk.
on 1 December 2011
Jeanette Winterson's narrative - part-memoir, part-reflection on the multiple lives we lead - is a fascinating tour through the projections of a complex mind. She talks repeatedly about the non-linearity of our lives, about the illusion of time and our multi-directional movement through it: how remembered experiences are as real to us now (realer?) as they were when we first had them. What I feel she's doing is setting herself up as the ultimate unreliable narrator. She isn't out to con her readers, or herself; simply, she's acknowledging life's ever shifting pattern and the impossibility of pinning down people or places, or the past (and present) itself.
What I'm saying is, don't read this as autobiography. Read it as another layer of stories, inspired by events, but aware of the stories behind it, and those still to come.
It's funny and raw. Outstanding moments for me included the dog biscuit factory, the time she took her pal Vicky home to Accrington for Christmas - Vicky's first encounter with End Time!!! - and the description of how Winterson tried to kill herself.
I loved it. I think JW would be the most amazing dinner guest!
on 20 November 2011
I am a recent convert to Jeanette Winterson, having seen her interviewed for the first time a year or so ago, and been intrigued.
This is the 4th of her books that I have read and is my favourite to date. She has a way of using words that makes prose sing like poetry. Each sentence is exquisitely pared down and no word is left to chance; each is chosen specifically and carefully for its effect.
She was appallingly uncared for and unloved as a child growing up in the house of the awesome Mrs Winterson (her father is all but absent throughout her formative years, although he shares the house with them). Her mistreatment is dealt with in a cool and objective detachment which belies her rage and fear of rejection.
This is a disturbing and beautiful memoir which brims with hope and love. Read it.
on 6 January 2012
Jeanette Winterson's writing is bold punchy, and witty, yet elegant and sometimes even sparse. It is interspersed with gems that make you stop and think, ponder whether you agree or disagree, or merely note the passage to be able to return to it later.
This is an autobiography that reveals a lonely and unhappy childhood. It feels so real that you find yourself wishing you could have given the young girl the love and affection she never knew as a child.
`When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, `The Devil led us to the wrong crib.'' It's a wonderful opening, but sad that it refers to one of the many disparaging comments used repeatedly by Mrs Winterson against her adopted daughter.
Locked out at night, or forced to take shelter in the coal shed, the young Jeanette derives comfort from `Literature A-Z' in Accrington's public library and grows into a resourceful and determined young woman. Despite leaving home at sixteen, she gains a place at Oxford, an achievement undreamt of among the industrial northern working classes of the 1960s and 70s.
Acknowledged as an accomplished writer who has developed a love of the natural world and concern for what humans are doing to it, she has still suffered deep despair, which she has hopefully now overcome for good. How far her unhappy childhood contributed to her later problems is an unknown factor, but it surely must have affected her perception of life and love.
I am not usually a fan of biography or autobiography but I so admire Jeanette Winterson's writing that I couldn't resist reading this one, even though I had intended it as a Christmas present for my husband's sister. I'm so glad I kept it and read it myself and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fine writing and is interested in the way people's lives and relationships develop.
on 19 December 2011
The author returns to her childhood that was first described in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Once again we meet Mrs Winterson,the woman who adopts Jeanette.A woman typical of pentecostal Lancashire ladies who hold strong opinions on lesbians and anyone else who fails to live within their ideals of respectable sexual behaviour. Some of this is very funny.In this book Jeanette Winterson reviews growing up in Manchester as an adopted child,finding her birth mother , coming to terms with her sexual orientation and her life so far.
The most convincing parts of the book are her arguments for the retention of well stocked public libraries as places for poor, working class children to find a quiet space to work and read.Less enjoyable is some of the name dropping and slightly self indulgent political discussion.
The difficulties of her adoption and building a relationship with her birth mother are touchingly described.A very enjoyable read.
on 19 December 2012
Alan Yentob did a wonderful documentary about Jeanette Winterson on the BBC - may still be on IPLAYER for UK residents. This provoked me to
buy and listen to Winterson read her own "Why be happy when you could be normal". Her words are a journey through her heart and soul.
Her extreme gift is to be able to tell us how it felt to be her - no mean feat for anyone - particularly since the pain she felt is so deeply buried.
If you want to know how an adopted child might feel, or a rejected child, this is your book. It's a life changer. Don't miss the chance to learn from her.
Also, you can read Kate Long's, another Lancastrian, "Bad Mother's Handbook" if you are interested in adoption and related issues. Totally different but very good and well written.
I only review books I feel are 5 stars.
on 29 October 2011
Jeanette Winterson's experience of growing up without knowing her birth parents is wise, amusing and insightful. Her descriptions of working class family life, poverty and social history are reflective and to the point without being overtly judgemental or self-pitying. Her straightforward style of prose makes this book accessible to a wide range of readers.
on 24 July 2014
The autobiography of Jeanette Winterson is a masterfully written monologue which is more than a list of events, oh so much more. Winterson's characteristic voice greats you and takes you into her childhood world of mad mothers, sleeping on doorsteps, meeting her first love and lots of reading.
I've read 'Oranges Aren't The Only Fruit' which is semi-autobiographical so the first quarter of this book makes lots of references to that book and film, I read it ages ago so it served as a nice reminder. Jeanette grew up in Manchester in the 1960s, she was adopted by Mr & Mrs Winterson, the father was so quiet I forgot he existed but the mother made up for it by being completely bonkers. It's astounding what Jeanette had to put up with, you would think that people adopting would be loving parents, but no, they aren't.
Jeanette's childhood is a struggle, both financially and emotionally, it is described with just the right amount of cold hard fact and a smattering of sentimentality which breaks your heart that a child can think that's normal. But Jeanette survived and went on to write many, very successful books. The adult part of the book went quite quickly for me, it was interesting to hear how she wrote them and I even learned she wrote several children's books.
The writing style is magnificent, I loved the rambling off-topic paragraphs which give you a glimpse into Jeanette's mind. I learned so much more than what's happened in her life so far, I've learned about her philosophy on writing, on being and on loving.
"Books, for me, are a home. Books don't make a home - they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space."
If you've read any of Jeanette's books and are interested in learning more about the author, this book is excellent.