July 10, 2012


Jeanette Winterson Autobiography
230 pages, Vantage Press

Review by Marc Nash

I'm not sure how this, Jeanette Winterson's autobiography, compares with her fictional debut novel "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" which treated the same autobiographical material, since I haven't read the latter. But Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a searingly brutal and yet lyrical self-portrait. In case you don't know her story, she was adopted at 6 weeks by strict Born-Again Christians in 1950s Northern working class Britain. Her temperament was naturally at odds with those of her domineering mother, irrespective of all the madness her mother lumped on top through her warped world view and before they clashed catastrophically when Winterson came out as a lesbian.

Winterson the child retreats into reading, often smuggling books home because they were frowned on, or casting her imagination to keep herself company when locked in a coal-hole or made to sit outside on the doorstep in the pouring rain for some domestic infraction. Yet the book is not a mere 'woe is me' and 'wasn't my upbringing terrible?' hatchet job on her mother (and the father who always shied away from challenging his wife's decisions and judgments on their daughter). She also recalls the strengths of her upbringing, the positive out of the negative, the invention of herself in opposition. The latter part of the book, about her search for her birth mother, while heartrending, is given far less page space than those who did actually rear her. And while temperamentally she can see she is far closer to her birth family once she rediscovers them, she doubts she would swap the environment of her childhood for what they might have offered. She speculates she may not have been forced to self-educate and discover the written word if she had grown up in a warmer family hearth.

Winterson is an arch stylist. Her language is not flashy, but it is luminous. It bleeds emotion on every page, but not messy emotion as untreated sewage; it is emotion beautifully couched in language and metaphor so that rather than bludgeoning us, it is more the honed blade of a stiletto knife. "But my (birth) mother had lost me and I had lost her and our other life was like a shell on the beach that holds an echo of the sea". Achingly beautiful prose that also rages with its fulminating passion. Winterson does not shirk the details of her demons and her mental breakdown which was the catalyst for searching for her birth mother. She admits she is impossible to live with in a shared space and hard to sustain a relationship that doesn't go up in a shower of flame. But she is also resolute in probing behind what lies behind those tendencies. She partly attributes it to being an outsider within her family, but her representation is more subtly and finely wrought than that mere pop psychology might suggest. As she says, "I recognise that life has an inside as well as an outside and that events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally".

And the derivation of the title? Well that was what Mrs Winterson retorted to Jeanette when she probed her about her lesbian relationship with a schoolfriend and her daughter had offered that such a relationship made her happy... We inherit our parents' genes, or not as in this case of adoption, but there's no escaping their nurturing skills either. Such as they are... Still, Jeanette Winterson hasn't turned out too badly has she?

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