Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir returns to the scenes of her semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985), published when Winterson was twenty-five. Like the car crash you crane your neck to see, readers will once again encounter the harrowing insanity of her adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson, “a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.”
For us as humans, telling ourselves our own story orients us in our mind and in the world. It says, I am here, in this place, and this is who I am. This truth telling (or for some, artful self-deception) does not need to be recorded for many individuals. For Winterson, whose early life is abusive and chaotic and cold, the art of writing is a necessity.
“There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt. It’s why I am a writer—I don’t say ‘decided’ to be, or ‘became’. It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs. Winterson’s story I had to be able to tell my own,” she writes.
So Winterson gives us part two of her life, with added years of experience, including applying to read English at Oxford, which she recalls as “the most impossible thing I could do,” losing her mind and then regaining it, and seeking her birth mother. She also recalls and relates the first sixteen years of her life, ruled by the madness of Mrs. Winterson, a woman who was “larger than life…like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable.”
Mrs. Winterson figured prominently in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and it is intriguing for the reader to be privy to Jeanette Winterson’s telling of two stories—one fiction and one fact. She writes, “…the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”
And yet this is a book of survival.
Books are a way up and out for Winterson, her means to persist and exist. For anyone who has ever lost him or herself in a book or fallen in love with language, Winterson’s reflections on the importance of literature and reading will ring true. In the world she grew up in, “books were few and stories were everywhere, and how you tell ‘em was everything.”
This tale is not always easy to stomach, but it’s a good read on so many levels—Winterson is a detailed and likeable narrator; the descriptions of working-class Manchester, U.K. in the 1960s and early 1970s are forcefully drawn, as if with a blunt pencil in the hands of Mary Cassatt; and her search for her mother, the young girl who gave her child up at six weeks old, is intertwined with musings on love that most readers should find touching.
It won’t spoil the book’s ending to share the last line of Winterson’s memoir—“I have no idea what happens next” (It will make sense in context, I promise.). But don’t rush through Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? just to satisfy your insatiable curiosity. This is a book worth spending time on.