walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal_, Jeanette Winterson

This month's book group pick. It's a memoir and the local library shelved it as biography.

I had a horrible time keeping the title straight: it's a toxic message and I keep "fixing" it in my head to be a message aligned with my values ("Why Be Normal When You Can Be Happy"). And I'm not the only one: the local librarian, and the librarian in Mayberry (<--not its real name) both made the same error, and my friend A. recognized the assbackwardness of the quote every time she thought of it but was able to keep it straight.

I haven't read anything else by the author, and I don't plan on starting now. However, as disturbing-memoirs-of-my-fucked-up-childhood-and-recovery go, this is a pleasant one. Winterson has incredible get-up-and-go: her zest for life, her passion and intellect are absolutely non-stop. She's got a real way with words and seems to be quite good at attracting people to herself who are fantastic and wonderful and supportive. But wow was it a fucked-up-childhood, and lots of evidence of multi-generational fucked-uped-ness for both of her adoptive parents and her bio-parents.

Many aspects of her childhood were relentlessly unfamiliar: running out of money and/or food on Thursday, not having meat very often, a coin-op gas meter, an outside loo, being locked in the coal bin for hours or out of the house on the doorstep over night. Most are things familiar to me at the distance of a generation or more (not the coin-op gas meter, and allowing for substitutions like being horsewhipped versus locked in a coal bin), but Winterson seems to be only about 10 years older than me. Adult baptism and mixed feelings about church -- that it supplies something to do and that's kind of a positive, say -- as well as the insanity of people obsessed with End Times, however, were very familiar, as was retreating to the worlds within books and hiding books from a hostile parent.

While the childhood details are quite horrifying, the true terror of this memoir lies exactly where one might expect it: when Winterson attempts to reconnect with her core self in latter years and finds the attempt harrowing and self-destructive. Her descriptions of her rage a separate and monstrous self are evocative and all too believable, however, I could not help but feel that she has not yet connected to the sadness within the anger, and that prevents her from feeling wholeness and belonging. The book ends with her confusion and fear over the anger she expresses to her bio-mother at a third meeting. Well, duh. Winterson is a super smart, really amazing woman; that particular freight train barreling down on her should have been expected and, ideally, an after-care plan should have been in place in advance. But I don't think that's the way she thinks about things, because that smells way too much of relying on the love and support of others and She's Not There Yet.

We had an interesting debate about whether we regarded this book as "hopeful". One person did. One person found Winterson's writing (and probably her person) too chaotic to tolerate. Two of us did not regard this as hopeful at all, altho I could sort of see how that kind of zest for life, that kind of get-up-and-go that Winterson sees embedded in the "hap" of "happiness", could be viewed as "hopeful" -- it strikes me as Sisyphean. This book reminded me slightly of _A Girl Named Zippy_; perhaps someday Winterson will write another memoir that tells us how the next bit went.
Tags: book review

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