Thursday, 7 June 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson

The title of this book is a question posed to the young Jeannette by her adoptive mother, and this memoir tracks the boundaries of happiness and normality, slipping over the border into misery and unreality.  The book is in two parts: the first part retraces, in memoir form, the story already told in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit; the second - after an intermission in which Winterson explains she will be leaving out 25 years of her life - tells the story of her search for her birth mother.  Anyone who has read Oranges will know that Jeannette Winterson's early life was strange, funny, and deeply troubling, and all of those adjectives apply to this book too.  Often, though, she insists on the normality of her life alongside its extraordinariness, drawing out the typical aspects of a Northern working-class upbringing within her own life.  For me, this just made the extraordinary aspects even more so.  Winterson is unflinching in explaining how her upbringing has affected her, especially in terms of the way she subsequently treated others; violence, lack of trust and lack of an ability to believe in the continuity of love have all marked her, and the people who were close to her.  She has also achieved what seemed to me a very generous understanding of both her mothers, particularly the monstrous Mrs Winterson, who she comes to see as "too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf, now and again exploding to her full three hundred feet and towering over us.  Then, because it was useless, redundant, only destructive, or so it seemed, she shrank back again, defeated".

Inevitably, the question of truth or fiction arises in this text.  Winterson tells us she is often asked what is "true" in Oranges and what was invented.  Part of this memoir shows us how books supported and constructed her idea of self, and it is to other, similar texts, that she turns to consider the "authentic" and the "fictional" selves:

Woolf and Stein were radical to use real people in their fictions and to muddle their facts - Orlando with its actual photos of Vita Sackville-West, and Alice Toklas, the supposed writer, who is Stein's lover but not the writer ...
For me, fascinated with identity, and how you define yourself, those books were crucial.  Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open - the only way to stop the story running away under its own momentum, often towards an ending no one wants.

It seems to me that reading yourself as a fiction is also a way to make the intolerable tolerable, through constructing alternative realities and futures.  I found all of this book, the hope and despair, terribly moving even while it was funny; the humour is, perhaps, another construction that keeps the narrative open.

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