Friday, 1 February 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

 Some children wrote letters to Santa. I wrote for the four horsemen of the apocalypse....  

What can I say, I loved this book!!! The title gives you a hint of the treat you're in for, (it was the response from Mrs Winterson when her daughter tells her she is gay). This account of Jeanette Winterson's quite frankly, abusive childhood in Accrington could quite easily have been a depressing read, but honestly I can't remember when I've laughed so much at a book. 

Much of  Winterson's childhood has been visited before in her first book Oranges are not the only fruit  a thinly disguised autobiographical novel. It was dramatised in a fabulous TV series starring the fantastic Geraldine McEwan as her domineering mother. (Follow the link for A snippet of Oranges Are not the only Fruit ). So I was intrigued to see what else she could add.
There is no doubt that Jeanette's childhood provided her with fantastic material for her writing. Her adopted mother was a domineering religious fanatic,  quite some character. The early combination of  her mother's strange religious non-sequiturs plus the beautiful prose from the King James' Bible obviously gave Winterson a good grounding in linguistic artistry.   I could've taken quotes from almost every page to show you, and going back to it to write this rather tardy blog entry, just made me want to read it again. Here are some examples taken at random that I particularly enjoyed. "God is forgiveness - or so that particular story goes, but in our house God was Old Testament and there was no forgiveness without a great deal of sacrifice. Mrs Winterson was unhappy and we had to be unhappy with her."

"Her favourite song was 'God has Blotted Them Out' which was meant to be about sins, but really was about anyone who had ever annoyed her, which was everyone."

"The only time Mrs Winterson like to answer the door was when she knew that the Mormons were coming round. Then she waited in the lobby, - before they had dropped the knocker she had flung open the door waving her Bible and warning them of eternal damnation. This was confusing for the Mormons because they thought they were in charge of eternal damnation. But Mrs Winterson was a better candidate for the job."

Mrs Winterson was unhappy and seemed pretty determined to inflict that misery on the rest of the household. Jeanette was never given a key to her house and was constantly locked out on the doorstep or worse, locked in the coalhole where she made up stories to help her forget about the cold and the dark.  "The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection."

Books were frowned on in the Winterson household. There were only six books in the house, one was The Bible and two others were commentaries on The Bible. Her mother didn't trust books -   "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late." so Jeanette read read them in secret. The local library became a safe haven for her. This part of the book reads like a fairytale- the bed that rose from the floor because of the books hidden under the mattress. Of course they are discovered and in hellfire and damnation mode, are burned by her mother but in typical Winterson fashion, this not the end but the start of something. The books had gone but what they held was already inside her. She realised there was something else she could do. "Fuck it, I thought, ' I can write my own." 

Although Mrs Winterson didn't allow books, the family lived in a world of print. Exhortations from The Bible were stuck all over the house. The ones in the outside loo are among my favourites. Those who stood up read  "LINGER NOT AT THE LORD'S BUSINESS" and for those who sat down there was - "HE SHALL MELT THEIR BOWELS LIKE WAX". It seems to me that Mrs Winterson could if she had wished, been a fine comedian.

With all its tales of lock-outs and lock-ins, exorcisms and mental cruelty this book could easily qualify as a 'misery memoir' however it is far from that. Its strength, alongside the fact that it is very funny, is Jeanette's zest for life. As she puts it, "I was and am in love with life"

This is a book about place and finding your place in the world. A tale of a journey - a search to find her place - outside of the working class hardships of Lancashire. Her search to find her biological mother and to forge a new way of relating to people which involved warmth and love rather than disappointment and coldness.  She does find these things, just don't expect a fairytale ending. 

Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
Why be happy when you could be normal?

You might also like: 

Tanglewreck  Winterson's first book for children.

And I've just seen that Winterson has a  new book out  The Daylight Gate (which kind of shows how long its taken me to post this blog!) it's described as a gripping gothic novella, set in the 16th Century witch trials. This is definitely being added to my wishlist.

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