Tuesday, March 06, 2012

WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL





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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson, Grove Press, 2011, 230 pp

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The title of this compulsively readable memoir is a direct quote from Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother. Though I am sure my mother wanted me to be happy and certainly she was a good deal more sane than Mrs Winterson, the motherly quote felt like something that lurked behind my mom's parenting rationale.

I've not read Jeanette Winterson's fiction. Her novels are on a list I never seem to get to; a list that includes Octavia Butler and early novels by Jane Smiley and Hilary Mantel. Like many voracious readers, my unread lists haunt me.

But now, though apparently her first, award-winning novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is a fictional account of Winterson's early life and covers some of the same life experiences as the memoir, my determination to read her is renewed. Her writing is exquisite. She handles painful emotion with a searing gaze mixed with wit. So English, I know. Playing down the horrific with a deadpan sardonic stoicism. But I also felt a huge heart beating.

Left out on a frigid front stoop overnight, being locked in the coal hole, having her secreted but discovered books burned, are incidents out of Dickens, but they made her a fierce fighter and a crusader on a quest for happiness.

It seems that adopted kids looking for the hidden birth mother are everywhere these days. Jeanette's experience is familiar territory including the likelihood of disappointment once Mum is found. In this case, Mrs Winterson being the over-the-top witch that she was, two mothers turned out to be possibly too much. The message seems to be that not many of us get the mothering we crave, no matter what.

I loved the portrait that emerged here: a survivor of abuse, poverty, and the sexual orientation wars, whose love of reading and refusal to give in did in fact bring to her about as much happiness as anyone gets in life. If you are female and/or adopted and/or gay, or just a "normal" female, you need to read this.

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