More than an autobiography
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 8 September 2016
'It was by some chance or other that I stumbled on Winterson’s Gut Symmetries a month or so ago. She is a marvellous writer – feisty, witty, ferociously intelligent, weaving words, character and narrative like a dream. She reminds me of a Catherine Wheel, spinning out in all directions, but the central core and drive holds everything together
Very quickly after Gut Symmetries I got her autobiography. The complex and challenging events of her early life had formed the first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (on my TBR). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, something her mother said to Winterson will probably contain some material which surfaced in Oranges, I guess shaped slightly differently for fiction.
Winterson’s deeply unpromising beginnings, an early life deprived of the kind of warmth and nourishment of parental regard and validation of the small child which ought to be a given, reminds me in many ways of the equally, but differently, dysfunctional start of another fine writer of similar vintage – Janice Galloway. Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Winterson in 1959 in Manchester. Both were treated unlovingly, were girls and women of extraordinary intelligence, for whom reading, and then writing, became escape, vocation and expression of their unique visions. Both writers rather fought, against the odds, for their own education, without parental encouragement, and both have written autobiographies which, whilst recounting horrible experiences are a million miles away from misery memoirs..
Winterson was adopted by a couple who seemed, particularly the mother, to be hugely dysfunctional. They were Pentecostal Evangelical Christians. Mrs Winterson - and this is how Jeanette refers to her in the book, rarely as ‘my mother’ or ‘mum’ clearly had all sorts of problems – with sex, - she refused her husband conjugal rights – and with an obsessive need to control the lives of all around her. Particularly husband and daughter. Winterson describes her :
“She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf. She would have done her face powder (keep yourself nice), but not lipstick (fast and loose)”
Little Jeanette experienced not just lack of warmth and neglect, but also cruelty. She would be locked out of the house, as a child, for minor misdemeanours. Her adoptive father was a shift worker, so if he was on a night shift, she might be locked out all night. Jeanette’s father did not stand up to his wife
“Inside our house the light is on. Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kind outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer…..”
Young Jeanette’s life was a story of adults who lived in evasion and denial, and where systemic attempts were made to break and negate her. But, she discovered the reality of reading, and the opening of other lives, and discovered also that she could write. Jeanette Winterson is painfully, savagely honest about her own mental, emotional, behavioural challenges – how could she not have been damaged by the childhood she had – but she is a writer who observes and analyses
“When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.
When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken”
I love the space that is made for the reader, in the above extract
I highlighted line after line and paragraph after paragraph in Winterson’s book – things which made me chuckle, things which made me cry, things which gave much pause for thought – there is a lot of honesty, a lot of reflection, rage, forgiveness, excitement, compassion, forgiveness. And an extraordinary story, which is a true one, albeit one told by a writer, who therefore knows how to leave out the boring bits, and keep the reader on their toes by throwing curve balls :
“The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection.
Read on its own that is an absurd sentence. But as I try and understand how life works – and why some people cope better than others with adversity – I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love for the self, however found. Not in the me-first way that is the opposite of life and love, but with a salmon-like determination to swim upstream, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream…”
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