Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson This is the truer, grittier, more analytical version of "Oranges are Not the Only Fruit" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/29005789), with an update of Winterson's very recent attempts to trace her birth mother, and interspersed with thoughts on words, writing, literature and a dash of politics of family, class, feminism and sexuality. It is better if you are familiar with Oranges, but not essentail.

When I read Oranges many years ago, it was before the vogue for "misery lit", a genre I have avoided. However, reading this, I realise that despite the erudition and humour, both books are perhaps in that category. Don't let that put you off. Much of Winterson's upbringing was awful: neglect, psychological bullying, deceit and most importantly, lack of love, and yet she comes through it all the stronger and even when she has a major breakdown in later life, still realises that her pain has made her who she is.

The story is now well-known, but to recap, Jeanette was adopted by a poor, middle aged, dysfunctional couple who belonged to a Pentecostal church. Most of the time, they all act as if their quirks and cruelty are entirely normal. She escaped into forbidden books and grammar school (an academically-focused school), but fell foul of her family when she fell in love with a girl.

Her mother is almost entirely referred to as "Mrs Winterson" (just occasionally "my mum", but never just "Mum"), whereas her father is "Dad" and mostly in the background until old age. Mrs W is the far more vividly drawn character: "a flamboyant depressive", “I think Mrs Winterson was afraid of happiness”. She was also hypocritical (a supposedly secret smoker who neither believed not practised all the teachings of her chosen church) and who had unexplained disappearances, whereas Dad is just weak, or perhaps too peaceful to stand up to her, who "hated him - not in an angry way, but with a toxic submissive resentment". “My father was unhappy. My mother was disordered. We were like refugees in our own life.” “There was a barrier between us, transparent but real.” “She was her own Enigma code and me and my dad were not Bletchley Park”. And specifically about Mrs W, “Our conversations were like two people using phrase books to say things neither understands”. But despite all the pain, as a middle aged woman, Winterson notes “I hate Ann criticising Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster”.

The undercurrent of the book and Winterson’s life is abandonment: given up by her birth mother, unloved and abused by her adopted mother, and abandoned by her first lover as soon as they were caught. In her troublesome teens, she wonders “were we endlessly ransacking the house, the two of us, looking for evidence of each other? I think we were – she, because I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me. Me, because I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing”. As an adult, “I have never felt wanted… And I have loved most extravagantly where my love could not be returned… but I did not know how to love”.

One of the aspects of this book that I most enjoyed was Winterson's feel and passion for language and literature, enhanced by the lengths she had to go to to enjoy them. "She [Mrs W] knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn't go out to work. Books had been forbidden in our house." The perverse exception was murder mysteries, "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late". But for Winterson, literature "isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place... She was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere... Do you come back?" She was not a high flier at school, and yet, “I knew how words worked in the way that some boys knew how engines worked”. The best thing about Oxford University was “its seriousness of purpose and the unquestioned belief that the life of the mind was at the heart of civilised life… It was like living in a library and that was where I had always been happiest”.

Writing is even more powerful, and there are two kinds: "the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous." The other side of that coin is that at her lowest point, which is brutally and bravely documented, “language left me”. Terrifying for anyone, let alone a writer. And not for the first time, it is poetry that rescues her, “All that poetry I learned when I had to keep my library inside me now offered a rescue rope… If poetry was a rope, then the books themselves were rafts. At my most precarious I balanced on a book, and the books rafted me over the tides of feelings that left me soaked and shattered”. “The poem finds the word that finds the feeling.”

Winterson also analyses the narrative of her own life, "Adopted children are self-invented... adoption drops you into the story after it has started". Regarding Mrs W's reaction to Oranges, "What you leave out says as much as those things you include... Mrs W objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story's silent twin." And both twins change when she traces her birth mother. Until then, “My whole identity was built around being an orphan – and an only child”. The meeting is visceral, traumatic, comic, but ultimately somewhat unresolved.

“I would rather be this me… than the me I might have become without books, without education” and that education comes to the fore towards the end, in a short chapter called “The Wound” where she compares lots of myths about wounds (literal and metaphorical), adoption, mistaken identity etc. It’s a powerful and erudite exploration of some of the themes in the book, but doesn’t quite fit in style.

There is understandable bitterness towards Mrs W, but despite rejecting the church, she is also grateful to it in some ways. Belief in God helped her when she was small (“God made sense of uncertainty”) and she saw many working class people "living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church... Bible study worked their brains". An unintended consequence being that familiarity with the 1611 Bible and daily use of thee and thou in their own speech, made Shakespeare was relatively accessible. She documents the contradictions of her church (some unpleasant, some merely comical) with a degree of fondness. When homeless and living in a car, she observes, “I was lucky in one way because our church had always emphasised how important it is to concentrate on good things”! In a similar vein, "The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection"! I’m not sure that would be benefit enough to appease a social worker.

Her life is about the pursuit of happiness, "life-long, and it is not goal-centred". She says that as a child, she always wanted to escape her life, as did Mrs W in a different way (every night she prayed "Lord, let me die"). However, she also says, “I don’t know anyone, including me, who felt trapped and hopeless”, albeit more in terms of church putting poverty into perspective. Applying to Oxford was apparently not so much about escape but “because it was the most impossible thing I could do”. In working class areas of the north in the 1970s, men were still in charge, and women undervalued, “My world was full of strong able women who were ‘housewives’ and had to defer to their men”. The result of this strange and traumatic upbringing is that “The things that I regret in life are not errors of judgement but failures of feeling.”

It would be easy to summarise the book in the lines, “She longed for me to be free and did everything she could to make sure it never happened” and "All she ever wanted was for me to go away. And when I did she never forgave me." However, that would do it a disservice, because it is really far more about the necessity of love – understanding it and fully experiencing it.

Winterson herself categorises three types of ending: revenge, tragedy and forgiveness; this book contains all three.

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