Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson – review
Jeanette Winterson's account of her abusive upbringing by an adoptive mother and her journey to find her real family is by turns hilarious and harrowing
Sunday 6 November 2011 00.05 GMT
eanette Winterson once asked her adoptive mother – stringently immortalised in her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – why they couldn't have books in the house. "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late," answered the peerless Mrs Winterson. As advertisements for reading go, it's pretty seductive. But it also happens to be wonderfully true of this vivid, unpredictable and sometimes mind-rattling memoir. You start it expecting one thing – a wry retake of her working-class gothic upbringing – and come out having been subjected to one of the more harrowing and candid investigations of mid-life breakdown I've ever read. This book is definitely of the sort that Mrs Winterson feared most: truths that most of us find hard to face, explored in a way that disturb, challenge, upset and inspire. And so yes, by the time I realised what it was really about and what it was going to do to me, it was definitely far "too late".
Jeanette Winterson was adopted as a baby by a couple who had been hoping for a boy. An evangelical Pentecostal Christian who possibly had never had sex with her husband ("They're his only pleasure," she said of the three packs of Polo mints she gave him every week), Mrs Winterson weighed 20 stone and kept a revolver in the kitchen drawer. If someone knocked at the door she "shoved a poker through the letter box". As Winterson very memorably puts it, she "did not have a soothing personality".
When her adoptive daughter upset her – inevitably and often – she'd say that the devil had led them to the "wrong crib". The young Jeanette was frequently deprived of food or locked out of the house or into the coal hole. Secretly, she began to read. But when her mother discovered the stash of books, she burned them. Lonely and bereft, she fell in love. But when her mother discovered her in bed with a girl, she took her to church and subjected her to three days of praying and beatings – not to mention a chilling attempted sexual assault from one of the elders – to "exorcise" the evil spirits.
Finally, after starting another relationship with a girl – and this time facing a stony ultimatum from Mrs Winterson – Jeanette ran away from home. She slept in a friend's car, and then in a sympathetic teacher's spare room. The teacher encouraged her to apply to Oxford. The rest is history.
Many years later – and Winterson admits to skipping over the large middle chunk of her life – a long-term relationship with the theatre director Deborah Warner comes to an end and Winterson goes "mad". Realising that it is, in part at least, her own inability to balance and temper her craving for reassurance that has caused the split, she has what amounts to a serious breakdown and attempts suicide. A little later, and by now in love with the therapist Susie Orbach – who seems in some way to be the angel of stability and calm that Winterson deserves – she feels safe enough to start to follow the trail that has always both tempted and frightened her: the one that might lead to her birth mother. Pages, months and many legal and emotional tussles later, it does.
And here's where this book – which up to this point had been funny enough to make me laugh out loud more times than is advisable on the No 12 bus – turns into something raw and unnerving. It turns into something you need to read in private, simply because you can't tell what will happen next or what you'll feel about it (Mrs W, you were right all along). The idea at its core, that it's possible to get roughly halfway through your life and find that the things you thought you'd dealt with, laughed off, survived, have come back to wallop you hard – endanger you, even – feels urgent and universal. And Winterson, with her fierce impulse for honesty, seems determined to unpack it all at some personal cost.
All of this, you realise, is still very recent – it's current affairs, not history – and it involves real people. Some have their identities disguised and some don't. But if Winterson is open about others, she's also (typically) unsparing of herself, heartbreakingly so in fact. Her analysis of events feels swift and direct – barely processed at times. It does not make for an easy journey for the reader. It is very hard, for instance, to watch someone who clearly loves being alive as much as she does, deciding almost coldly to let herself die. And her response to meeting her real family – comically tentative, wary, needy, yet in crucial ways underwhelmed – is also bravely told. You catch yourself, breath held, desperately wanting there to be something good in it for her.
This book is a gamble, but then that's perhaps one of the less surprising things about it: Winterson has always been a risk-taking writer, instinctively tempering her own slightly bolshie directness with humour, compassion and kindness. All the same, I found myself feeling oddly protective of all these good people, the author included – hoping that their presence on these pages won't make them too vulnerable, hoping there won't be repercussions for anyone (hoping, in short, that the Daily Mail will stay away).
Of course, one of the book's queasiest ironies – and one you sense Winterson is fully aware of – is that it was Mrs Winterson who made her into a writer. By attempting to stunt her daughter's emotional and imaginative growth with fear and religion, she succeeded in doing the exact opposite. She created someone who learned to live in her head, and to love, trust and remember words: "Fuck it, I can write my own," was young Jeanette's thought as she watched her beloved books burn.
If this were a novel, you might leave it like that. But real life is a baggy old thing, never so straightforward, and one of this memoir's bizarrest moments – and most glorious contradictions – is the one where Mrs Winterson reads Jane Eyre aloud to a seven-year-old Jeanette, cunningly changing the ending as she reads, to have the hapless governess marry the sanctimonious St John Rivers. Megalomaniac passion-killer she might have been, but here was a woman who was clearly excited by narrative, who cared how things turned out, who was – surely? – fascinated by those unpredictable and dangerous things called books.
The triumph of this memoir is that, with understanding, intelligence and a verbal agility that leaves you in awe, Winterson dares, in the strangest way, to celebrate this. In fact its many sparkling contradictions are what make me love it most. As Winterson says when she realises that she doesn't like hearing her birth mother criticise Mrs Winterson: "She was a monster, but she was my monster."