Detonate Life, Don’t Decorate It

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson

Vintage, 978099556091, £8.99

Last winter, when I first read this book,  I thought it would repay a second visit. It does. The elegance of the writing, the love of language, of structure, the playful way Winterson works with biographical fact and fiction, the insight she has into her own self and her intuited acceptance of the paths that fate has directed her down, are all deeply impressive. Where I cannot complete a sentence without the ghost of a cliché lurking, Winterson is able to create clean and clever images that clearly express her meaning – and leave enough hidden to keep us thinking.

It could be said that there is much in this impression of an autobiography that is so far outside of the ‘normal’ experience of most of us to be quite alien. How many of us have been adopted and brought up by a mother who wanted a different child,  who kept a revolver in a biscuit tin, was waiting for the Apocalypse to come and wouldn’t allow books in the house because ‘the trouble with a book is that you never know what is in it until it’s too late’? Most of us haven’t been thrown out of our house because of our sexuality, had an exorcism performed over us to try and ‘cure’ us or then had a church elder attempt to affect that cure in a more physical way. Most of us haven’t lived in a car, gone to Oxford, become a world famous novelist, had a complete breakdown and then been pulled through a plethora of administrative nooses while trying to track down our birth mother.

If the institutional church doesn’t make an altogether positive contribution to Winterson’s youth – and we are talking about a specific form of Pentecostal chapel – then there is much of the discipline of the community and, more importantly, the power of the word in the Bible that she does still carry with her. The Bible – the King James Version – is the bedrock of her literary learning, the one book that she was actively encouraged to read. The richness of its language, the cadences of its sentences inform, inspire and impregnate her prose. She has a great respect for the Bible as a book, and perhaps, even for the lessons of love it espouses, even though churches tend to bury them in layers of conditionality.

There is a great deal of pain and hurt in this memoir. It is not that it is treated dispassionately, although there is at times a certain fairly cool professional detachment, but the mix of raw emotion and insightful dissection is handled with the clinical eye of a writer, carefully weighing up the impact of each word and phrase. This doesn’t stop the description of her reaching the edge of suicide from being guttural and wrenching, no matter how well-rounded the language. The contrast between this abyss of despair and the lust for life she evinces by leaping into the sensualities of her sexuality is quite stark – although even under the pleasure of pleasure is to be found the searching for an honest way to relate, to love and be loved.

‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’is about many things – love and literature, sex and the apocalypse, motherhood and authority, learning and knowing, becoming yourself and finding yourself in others. It reflects a northern view of the world that might already have seemed anachronistic to metropolitan minds, but which is treated with understanding and respect even as it is shown up as sometimes damaging and limiting. The ease with which the sentences flow, the careful weighing of words so that just the right ones are used, the power of the imagery and the appositeness of the anecdotes combine to produce a book which, in its unfurling of an ‘abnormal’ life, magnetically connects with the abnormality in all of us.

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