Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson

Jeannette Winterson is a very celebrated writer. She's won the Whitbread Prize and her fictional account of her bizarre Pentecostal childhood, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has been dramatized for television. She's been awarded the OBE for her services to literature and she is one of the giants of the British writing establishment. She's been lauded to the moon and back. So her memoir, covering much of the same time period as Oranges, should have been incredibly compelling. But instead, somehow, it totally missed the mark for me.

Winterson was adopted into an abusive, fanatically religious Pentecostal home where she never felt loved or wanted. Her mother spent much of her childhood shaming her and abusing her emotionally so it's no wonder that the tone of this memoir is so incredibly dark, rancorous, and unforgiving. Winterson details the punishments she suffers at her adoptive mother's hand and her own internalizing of her limited self-worth. With such an unhappy childhood, it is no wonder that she is so damaged and emotionally stunted. Starting with a description of Mrs. Winterson, as she calls her mother from the vantage point of her now many years of emotional remove, she speculates on what drove this depressed and rigid woman to adopt.  From there she quickly announces the publication of her much-celebrated novel, a fictionalized look at her own childhood, that could only cast her fanatical mother and the upbringing she suffered under this woman in a very bad light before she jumps into the meat of her narrative.

Much of the early portion of this memoir hews closely to the tale told in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And although Winterson is detailing the ways in which she was beaten down, belittled, and destroyed as a child and young woman, she also offers up those small acts of defiance and self-preservation that enabled her to weather the dysfunction in her home and to finally, with the help of other sympathetic people, escape the hate. She examines the actions and the reactions that shaped her into the woman and the writer that she's become. But when she goes to move past her successes in spite of her upbringing, she is unable to fill in the blanks of a 25 year intermission, saying that it is too painful to address at this point in her life, which begs the question why she wrote the memoir at all. Is it simply to excoriate the woman who raised her? Was it to lay blame on the young girl who gave birth to her and allowed her to be adopted by the Wintersons? If a memoir doesn't invite self-disclosure and an examination of the whole of a life as it is lived so far, then what does it become?

In this case, Winterson's tale might have been cathartic for her to write (at least as far as she was able to write it), but it was fairly painful to read, dry, emotionally distant, and ultimately rather dull. The writing was intentional and impressive but also scattered and didactic. There was a heavy-handed direction in how the reader is supposed to react to each instance in Winterson's life, from her devastating childhood to her depressed and suicidal adulthood, and yet despite the signposts, the emotional barrenness kept me from reaching the place I was supposed to feel. Although there is still a distinct feeling of her continued suffering and victimization in these pages, she does do quite a good job placing her coming of age and coming out in historical context and that saves this memoir from being simply a rage against both of her mothers, adoptive and biological, and a congratulatory reinforcement of her own professional accomplishments. I came away from this reading extremely grateful that I was finished with the book and incredibly reluctant to read anything else that Winterson has read is this is any indication of her style.

1 comment:

  1. I'd gone for this one in NetGalley last year, but it expired before I could get to it. I've read other memoirs where I could still feel the bitter flowing from the pages, and didn't really go for them much. Great job in this review!


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