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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Book review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson (2011)

I bought this memoir after seeing the author interviewed on TV despite the fact that I'd also previously bought a novel of hers, and rejected it. The fact is that I love memoirs. I especially love memoirs about childhoods. And I even more particularly love memoirs by people who are measurably different and special. There was Winterson on TV, feisty, zesty, with an unquenchable aptitude for producing words. There was Winterson the gay novelist. Who was also adopted as an infant. I could not resist this book even though I'd found Lighthousekeeping (2004) mannered and plain (it never got reviewed here).

Yes, Winterson's sentences are sometimes short and unforgiving. But I realise now that this reflects her desire to achieve accuracy. I did find her somewhat discursive, but this is a mere reflection of the same cause: she assimilates and analyses things and then ventures out an explanation to fit her enduring requirement for accuracy and pithiness. So my problems with Winterson's style were resolved to a degree with this memoir and I settled down to enjoy the story.

It's an unfamiliar take on an old story. I think that most people who are creative and individual experience childhoods that are, to varying degrees, unhappy and restrictive. Most people's mothers are not forever waiting for the End Time, of course, just as most people's mothers do not routinely lock them out of the house for minor infringements of the domicile's moral rules. There's no question that Jeanette suffered to a significant degree for her mother's ideosynchratic peculiarities. But the ordinary reader I mentioned can profitably read this memoir and empathise with the things that transpire.

A lot of people aren't gay. A teenager who realises that she is gay might also not possess a Christian fundamentalist for a mother. Many people aren't adopted. This combination of factors increases the piquancy of what happens in the book, which also seeks to illustrate the author's search for her biological mother. And that is an unfinished tale as the book ends. The author knows the reader is seeking out a resolution to the central drama, which is Winterson's frustration at having been dealt such a difficult hand by fate. There is also the issue of Winterson's personal ideosynchrasies: the rages, the fatigue in the face of stress, the clinical depression that enters at one stage in her life.

She draws out the narrative in a pleasant way. There is some sort of resolution, but Winterson's taste for accuracy ensures that when the final page is reached the reader is already wondering about a sequel. Perhaps there will be one in another 10 years or so. We hope Winterson keeps writing to that extent.

As for me, I will be searching out other books by Winterson (who, for some reason, I thought was Canadian) because I think that she does have something to offer. Now that I know she invented herself as a writer out of a childhood and adolescence as a passionate reader, and did so alone and without any outside guidance beyond those provided by her librarian and her English teacher at school, I will be more tolerant of the special qualities of her prose. I was too rash with the earlier book, too quick. But that's me. Smart people often are. And, anyway, she may have improved in the intervening seven years.

1 comment:

Meredith Jones said...

So happy to see this reviewed here Matt. I liked this memoir very much, and I think it's a great companion piece to her first memoir/novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit... which is more or less the same story, told in quite a different way. I read that 25 years ago I think! Like you I've never enjoyed the other books, but perhaps I should follow suit and give them another go... you've inspired me.