Sunday 11 December 2016

Review: Biography: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Jonathan Cape, £14.99

Published 11/12/2011 | 06:00

In the autumn of 1975, 16-year-old Jeanette Winterson had to make a choice. She could continue to live in the home of her evangelical adoptive parents, or she could continue to see the girl she had fallen in love with and live in a Mini parked on the street. She chose the latter option, telling her mother quite simply that Janey (her girlfriend) made her happy.

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"Why be happy when you could be normal?" was the embittered response.

Ten years later, Winterson's bestselling novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, charted the more palatable aspects of her extraordinary childhood in the small Lancashire town where she grew up.

That book, she tells us in this painful memoir, was "a story I could live with". The reality was "much lonelier".

It is easy to see why Jeanette felt alone. Forbidden to mix with other schoolchildren, she spent solitary playtimes on the wrought-iron fence. She was regularly locked outside the house to sleep on the doorstep until her father came home from his night shift. She was often shut in the coalhole (she broke down the door).

When she found solace in books and hid them under her mattress (fiction was the realm of the devil), her mother discovered and burned them all.

She wanted to play the piano; her mother sold it. When she first found love with a female friend, her mother organised a brutal three-day exorcism.

Winterson's "gloriously wounded" mother dominates this book ("Love was not an emotion. It was a bomb site between us"), but the purpose of it all is to connect the past to the present; which gives rise to crucial questions about the nature of love, identity and loss.

Winterson shifts from her childhood to tell of the breakdown that ensued after the failure of a six-year relationship with theatre director Deborah Warner.

That episode led in turn to a gruelling search for Winterson's birth mother, Ann, whom she found with the help of her new partner, Susie Orbach.

We are shown "how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness", and come to respect Winterson's psychological courage and her rage to love, despite the "savage lunatic" she discovers inside herself.

The prose spills with questions, reflection and information. Winterson is full of books, and wants us to know those she most esteems. She quotes poetry, novels, plays and hymns. She gives idiosyncratic snatches of social and political history. She talks of Freud, Jung, God and fairytales.

We learn that dog biscuits taste like the real thing if you dip them in sugar, and that it's possible to mend a clutch cable with two bolts and a can of Tizer.

She discusses liminal space, different kinds of time and, of course, her own writing. "The Wintersonic obsessions of love, loss and longing" are fiercely defended and, somehow, explained. "I have no idea what happens next" are the book's last words.

Having read them, it's hard not to want to know.

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