Between the Covers

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson

I read this hardcover book twice for the pure pleasure of the style and language: "When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, 'The Devil led us to the wrong crib.'" Mrs Winterson was a depressed religious fanatic who banned books, quoted the Bible and lived in 'End Time', viewing the universe as 'a cosmic dustbin' with the lid on. The only escape was at Armageddon, which was coming any day, when the faithful would be saved. Their family lived 'like refugees in our own life'. Winterson nevertheless draws a sympathetic portrait of the disturbed woman who adopted her, and the hard-working, defeated husband, who never stood up for her but she, comes to realise, 'always loved (me) but she wouldn't let him'.

In answer to many questions about the autobiographical content of her first book Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, she says, "...I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it." Several novels later she's finally found a way to write a memoir about her terrible childhood by couching it in a social/cultural context, dwelling more on how it affected her and how she saved her damaged self than the actual content, which she'd largely covered in Oranges. Sometimes it's almost too painful for her to look directly at her past, and instead she circles events until bringing it all into sudden focus with a seemingly throwaway line: "The coal hole was not a good place; leaky, dirty, cold. I hated being locked in there much more than I hated being locked out on the doorstep."

As well as telling her story, she explores what writing means to her; offers overviews of why and how other people write to perhaps explain her own approach to writing about her painful and strange upbringing: "words are the part of silence that can be spoken". I loved this intelligent, intellectual, deep read, where she learned "the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need." Her wonderful riffs on happiness and love provide some of the threads of human behaviour gathered and tied into some order as she tries to make sense of her life, her past and how she lives now, in a book where the end surprisingly modifies the content.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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