Saturday 25 November 2017

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Jonathan Cape, £14.99
The truth turns out to be stranger than fiction in novelist Jeanette Winterson's autobiography, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

The title of Jeanette Winterson's new memoir comes from an incident when she was 16 and first told her strict, deeply religious adoptive mother that she was in love with another girl.

"When I am with her I am happy," she tried to explain, but her mother simply didn't understand. "Why be happy," she replied, "when you could be normal?"

The mixture of pathos and black humour in that line perfectly sums up this sad, moving book about being brought up by deranged Pentecostal parents in a two-up, two-down house in the North of England with its "long dark lobby and pokey rooms, the yard with the outside loo, and the coal hole, the dustbins and the dog cellar".

It's familiar territory for readers of Winterson's debut novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which fictionalised the same material, though it turns out here that the truth was even more depressing.

Giving up the consolations of invention also allows the author to reflect in more depth on the effect those early experiences had on her entire life.

"There is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives," Winterson says of adopted children. "The feeling that something is missing never ever leaves you."

It's hardly surprising that she felt this way. Mrs Winterson (as she calls her mother throughout) was a nihilistic, complicated, unhappy woman. "Lord let me die," was her daily prayer. Indeed, for her the universe was a cosmic dustbin. The young Jeanette asked if the lid was on or off. "On," she was told firmly, "Nobody escapes."

Mrs Winterson regularly informed Jeanette as she grew up that the Devil had led them to the wrong crib. "Sex disgusted her. And now, when she saw me, she saw sex."

Her relationship with her adoptive father was scarcely less fraught. She was regularly disciplined and often despised her parents "with the hatred of the helpless ... A hatred made of coal, and burning low like coal, and fanned up every time there was another crime, another punishment".

All three, she recalls in one particularly poignant and memorable phrase, were "like refugees in our own lives".

Escape, both necessary and inevitable, came in the form of a place at Oxford University, but her first Christmas home proved to be a turning point. Winterson recalls saying goodbye to her mother. "She didn't answer. Not then. Not later. I never went back. I never saw her again."

Years later, we're told that Mrs Winterson "died without painkillers and in pain", her mind as vast and frustrating a mystery as ever. Therein lies the contradiction. As readers, we're sorry to see her go. She's one of the most unforgettable characters in modern fiction, a monster almost Dickensian in her raging intensity, but this villain was real, "gloriously wounded like a mediaeval martyr, gouged and dripping for Jesus," and you wouldn't wish her on anyone.

Twenty-five years later, and with a string of successful novels to her name -- a period skipped over in this memoir, though with the tantalising possibility of a future volume to fill in the gaps -- there's been a reconciliation of sorts with her adoptive father, and Winterson is now consumed with tracking down her birth mother, a woman that she had always been told was dead.

It's an arduous process which coincides with the breakdown of the relationship with her girlfriend, and a subsequent suicide attempt, a dark period which takes her right back to that "abandoned place" she thought she'd left behind all those years ago, when she felt empty and unworthy of love.

Don't get the wrong idea. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? could so easily have been just another misery memoir with each new revelation slapped on, for effect, layer by layer, but Winterson's too good a writer to allow this to happen, and too honest not to be as hard on herself as she is on others.

She admits to hitting all her previous partners until she realised it wasn't acceptable, even confessing: "There are people who could never commit a murder. I am not one of those people."

Winterson is a dab hand at such wry understatement; the eyebrow is rarely unraised for long.

It's not a book of happy endings, though. Real life doesn't work like that. "The pursuit of happiness is full of surprising, temporary elements" -- there's even an epiphany of sorts, mainly through work, because Winterson is a devout believer in the healing power of creativity; the imagination being for her as immense as God was for her adoptive mother. "But we can't stay there, it isn't our world."

The reader can't help feeling that Mrs Winterson would approve wholeheartedly of that sentiment.

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