You don’t have to have a catastrophic childhood to become a writer, but one might be forgiven for thinking that it helps. In Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she recounts her excellent credentials in this respect, a child adopted into a working class family, the failed dream of a depressive religious fanatic who stayed up all night smoking and waiting for Armageddon, at least in part to avoid any possibility of marital relations. Mrs Winterson, as Jeanette refers to her throughout the book, was ‘out of scale, larger than life’. A big woman, heavy and tall, she was an oppressive character and a harsh one, with what must have been a borderline personality disorder sharpened by the extreme power that mothers in that age exercised over the domestic sphere. Jeanette was not well loved, being herself a rebellious child who learned an ugly lesson in domineering human relations from her mother. She regularly found herself locked out on the doorstep overnight, or confined to the coal celler. Books were forbidden: ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until too late.’ And when in her early teens, Jeanette’s stash of books hidden under her bed were discovered, her mother burned them in the yard. The next morning Jeanette went out and picked up what burnt fragments remained.
‘This is probably why I write as I do – collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative,’ she writes. Because as much as this is a book about an outlandish upbringing, it is an act of redemption in tracing the way that trauma and misery can be converted to passion and genius through creativity. Jeanette Winterson is perfectly clear that books saved her. She worked her way through English Literature A-Z in her local library and was taken in by an English teacher when she was finally thrown out of her house at 16 for the unforgivable crime of being romantically involved with another girl. The first time Mrs Winterson had caught her out in an alliance, she had arranged an exorcism. When that didn’t work, there was evidently nothing more to be done than banishment, but by that time, it was understood by Jeanette to be escape. For a while she lived in a Mini, but once given a room of her own by her teacher, she settled down to serious study and made it to Oxford University.
I remember reading her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which she wrote at the prodigious age of 25, and being blown away by the voice in that narrative, so direct and funny whilst it recounted dreadful things. The first half of the memoir will be very familiar to readers of that novel, whose autobiographical basis was never hidden. Mrs Winterson is even more monstrous in reality than she was in fiction, but Jeanette manages the extraordinary feat of recounting her behaviour with the sort of affectionate disengagement that makes her almost amusing. There’s a mixture of qualities working in harmony here, the fierce fighting spirit that Jeanette was born with, the understanding she has clearly had to work hard for, and a novelist’s eye for the deliciously eccentric detail. To a writer, Mrs Winterson is a gift, even if to a child, she was a life sentence.
The first half sucks you in so completely that the second part punches you right between the eyes when you least expect it. Winterson skips forward 25 years to what you might call the real day of reckoning. A long-term relationship has just ended and left her completely devastated. Her father dies, and she finds amongst his belongings her birth certificate. This combination of events sends Jeanette spiralling downwards into a breakdown and a suicide attempt. She realises that what she has to deal with here is the original wound of abandonment, created when she was given away for adoption and then left to fester in the unhealthy family she joined. Now begins a fraught odyssey for her as she attempts to locate her birth mother. I can’t really comment on how this section of the narrative was written as I was too busy guzzling it down to notice. It is, however, deeply, deeply moving. The humour of the first half, and the narrative veneer that Jeanette paints so skilfully over it, skewering her vignettes from the early days with insight and compassion and exquisite style mitigates the damage that her childhood caused. That damage returns with interest in the second part, as is inevitable. No one survives that sort of childhood without paying a heavy price. But never fear, as there is a happy ending in sight, and an extremely intriguing one, too. I won’t give it away, so suffice to say that what happens offers Jeanette another, even more surprising, perspective on her relationship to the mad, bad, and ultimately very sad Mrs Winterson. This is an excellent book, powerful, extremely well written and hypnotically engaging. Warmly recommended.