Three decades ago, when Jeanette Winterson began publishing the first of her many venturesome books, she had a notorious reputation: She was the gender bender, the high-concept thinker with the ferociously emotional yet fiercely disciplined prose. These days, our culture’s not so easily shocked by tales of lesbian self-discovery (“Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”) or characters of ambiguous sex (“Written on the Body”). Perhaps our greater ease with sexual identities outside the norm owes something to Winterson herself.
Sexuality and gender, however, are hardly her only subjects. The title of her new memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?,” is the question her adoptive mother asked during a confrontation about the teenage Jeanette’s female lover. The words “adoptive mother” and “lover” suggest Winterson’s concern with abandoned children, lost mothers and the human struggle for love in all its forms.
The adoptive mother is as central a figure in this memoir as Winterson herself. A fundamentalist Christian dryly referred to throughout as “Mrs. W” and “Mrs. Winterson,” she was a monstrous, smart and funny presence who instructed Jeanette’s father in the ritualized beating of their only child and sometimes locked her out of the house overnight. Jeanette, meanwhile, “sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.”
Mrs. Winterson told the young Jeanette that the universe was a “cosmic dustbin” with the lid on and no escape. The family played out its misery in the industrial north of England: Winterson was raised in the village of Accrington, near Manchester, and her offhand sketching of working-class poverty in the 1960s and ’70s is what’s really shocking. In a group portrait that sometimes looks more 19th than 20th century, everyone around young Jeanette is cold and hungry, exhausted from factory work and from walking miles to school, home and church.
Miraculously, though, the adult Winterson celebrates the church that conducted an exorcism of her as “a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility,” even as she recognizes its cruelties. She regards working-class Northerners as intelligent and resourceful: Her alphabetical immersion into “English Literature in Prose A-Z” in the Accrington Public Library is the best (and most delightful) exhibit of that resourcefulness. She talks herself into Oxford and escapes her corner of the dustbin, but no one has told her that you can buy gasoline on the highway, and so she sets off with “twenty gallons of petrol in tins.”
The first half of this coming-of-age story is arresting and suspenseful, even though we know perfectly well that Jeanette will remain a lesbian, despite her mother’s best efforts, and will become a bestselling and influential writer. Winterson has a wonderfully off-kilter sense of humor about her dark past (Chapter 2’s title: “My Advice to Anybody Is: Get Born”), but she is a loopy writer in the structural sense, too, preoccupied with the nonlinear nature of time. She swoops between present and past, between narrative and contemplation, with grace and economy.
In its second half, the memoir jumps to the near-present. The adult Winterson tracks down her birth mother, suffers a breakdown in the face of a failed love affair and struggles to get herself back together. Because it extends into the present, this section does not have — perhaps cannot have — the freeing distance of irony, of deadpan delivery, that the earlier part so effectively deploys. Winterson’s account of recovery and reunion with her birth mother is certainly moving — only a Mrs. W. would not be shaken — but the memoir’s second half sometimes seems plain and unWintersonesque in the telling. Psychotherapeutic lines (“Susie has always said to me to be in the feeling and not to push it away, however difficult”) sound sincere and reasonable but lack the unsettling power of Winterson’s art.
Yet even the closing scenes offer literary surprises and flashes of magnificent generosity and humor. When she discovers that the horrid Mrs. W. was expecting to adopt a boy, her response to this “absurd explanation” of her sexuality is to quote Anne Sexton on the subject of the “untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha.” When her birth mother criticizes Mrs. W., she bristles, “She was a monster but she was my monster.” Psychotherapeutic language notwithstanding, Winterson is always a pleasure. My advice: Read the memoir, wait on the doorstep for the next novel, consume voraciously.
Sayers, whose novel “The Powers” will be published this year, is chair of the English Department at the University of Notre Dame.
WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL?
By Jeanette Winterson
Grove. 230 pp. $25