Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Ronnie takes a look at Jeanette Winterson’s memoir.

I bought this book for Sarah late last year. She was having what we hope will be her final post breast cancer surgery, and I knew she’d need something good to read during her recovery. I’d heard Jeanette Winterson reading from the book on Radio 4 and so had complete confidence it would be good. It was an immediate hit with Sarah. And as Christmas passed I still hadn’t managed to get hold of it, as she was on her second laugh and rage out loud read of it by then. So I bought it for myself and read it on my iPad.

And immediately found I was putting quotes from it on my wall on Facebook. Because it’s an eminently quotable book.

Also, she’s currently on the BBC iPlayer talking about the book, walking around Accrington and even sitting on the front doorstep she was banished to for half her childhood. Don’t miss it!

It tells a story, of course it does, the story of her life. A story you’ll be partly familiar with if you’ve read ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’. Being adopted by Pentecostal parents and enduring a childhood of domination and mistreatment by her adoptive mother that would be considered unbelievable if it were not true. And surviving all of this to run away as a teenager and eventually turn it into her semi-biographical first novel.

Well the first half or so of this memoir is kind of the ‘Director’s Cut’ of ‘Oranges’, where we find that she’d actually toned things down in the novel and invented a major kindly adult character she never really met, to make her life seem more bearable.

But bear it she did. And you can read about how and what she did next when you get your hands on a copy of this raw, real, essential book.

Which, as I mentioned before, is eminently quotable. So to try and make sure you’ll not miss out on one of the richest reading experiences of your life, here are a few quotes, all taken from the opening four chapters of a very bumpy ride.

On early days and learning to live with adversity:

“I was very often full of rage and despair. I was always lonely. In spite of all that I was and am in love with life. When I was upset I went roaming into the Pennines – all day on a jam sandwich and a bottle of milk. When I was locked outside, or the other favourite, locked in the coal-hole, I made up stories and forgot about the cold and the dark. I know these are ways of surviving, but maybe a refusal, any refusal,  to be broken lets in enough light and air to keep believing in the world – the dream of escape.”

“But as I try and understand how life works – and why some people cope better than others with adversity – I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love for the self, however found. Not in the me-first way that is the opposite of life and love, but with a salmon-like determination to swim upstream, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream…”

“There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.”

“There is a lot that you can’t change when you are a kid. But you can pack for the journey…”

On starting to read books:

“I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books and she said, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”

“The Accrington Public Library…held all the Eng lit classics, and quite a few surprises like Gertrude Stein. I had no idea of what to read or in what order, so I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen…”

And after her mother has discovered her secret stash of books under her mattress, and has thrown them all out of the window and set fire to them:

“The books had gone, but they were objects; what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away.

And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do.

‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.”

Go on. You’ve got to read this.

8 thoughts on “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

  1. Kathi

    It’s amazing anyone turns out sane growing up in such a fashion. I will definitely put this on my list. I think there are so many of us who write, who have come from family craziness. True for me, with a mentally ill mom. My mom was a saint, however, compared to Jeanette’s adoptive one.

    This reminds me of another author, Jane Vandenburgh, whose autobiographical novel, Failure to Zigzag, was one I adored. She managed to find tremendous humor in it all, alongside the pathos. She also has published a memoir, a gloves-off version of the novel, which I will now have to read as well. Link here: http://janevandenburgh.com/books

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      What staggered me was how Jeanette had had to invent a sympathetic adult character for her first novel, because she thought it sounded unrealistic that she’d never met one. I’ve read most of her novels and this memoir adds to my understanding of all of them.

      Jane Vandenburgh sounds more than interesting. Is ‘A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century’ the gloves-off memoir? If it is it’s a corking title that will confuse many purchasers!

      Reply

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