Archive for October, 2012

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ Oscar Wilde

A small and cosy group gathered in the Barrels Alehouse this month to discuss Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ Barbara was one of a number of members who could not attend, so she emailed her thoughts to us before the meeting.

‘I loved Oranges Are not The Only Fruit and had heard some extracts of this latest memoir on Radio 4, so I knew I was going to enjoy this book. I also know that everyone will cite the same outstanding things (astonishingly vivid character portraits, humour, compassion) so I’ll just say that these elements worked really well for me too. I’m going to avoid playing the amateur psychologist and trying to work out why Winterson did certain things or said things a certain way. I’m happy just to accept them because she is such a compelling storyteller. One thing that bugged me was the sometimes clumsy and ‘teenage’ style of writing, such as use of CAPITAL LETTERS and rows of ellipses. I don’t think an unestablished writer would’ve been allowed to get away with them and for me, although they may have been a deliberate device to invoke the youthful voice, they were an irritation. As a typical buttoned-up middle-class Brit I felt vaguely uncomfortable with accounts of her real-life, more contemporary lovers. Otherwise it was a fantastic read, but I knew it would be! I think Winterson is one of our most exciting and original writers.’

Janet did attend, and found herself in the role of ‘witness for the defence’. She has sent her thoughts for inclusion in the blog.

‘Although my usual reading fare is crime fiction, when I heard a couple of excerpts of this book, read by the author, on Radio 4 I knew I had to buy it. Aside from that experience, I came to Why be Happy … knowing very little about Jeanette Winterson. I was dimly aware of the TV version of her novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, which deals with much the same subject matter, but hadn’t read the book. My ignorance meant that I approached her memoir with few preconceptions and, perhaps as a result, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I was appalled yet riveted by Winterson’s depiction of her relationship with her adoptive mother, whose attitude to parenting is summed up in this paragraph:

‘When I went deaf she didn’t take me to the doctor because she knew it was either Jesus stoppering up my ears to the things of the world in an attempt to reform my broken soul, or it was Satan whispering so loud that he had perforated my eardrums.’

Winterson also describes in a matter-of-fact way the poverty of her childhood, most movingly in the story of the old lady who, it was only discovered when her body was being prepared for her funeral, had kept her coat on wherever she went because she hadn’t been able to afford a dress.

Alright, so some of Winterson’s descriptions may be exaggerated, she trots out cod psychology every now and then, and she skates over huge chunks of time (I would have liked to hear more about her experiences at university). But this is a memoir, her memoir, so she’s free to tell it how she wants. I forgive her for all the book’s failings, because of its humour, its lyricism and the fact it is a tale of a young girl surviving through books.’

Glynis, Ann LF, Martin and David were all singularly unimpressed with the book, particularly the first half, which was dismissed as a re-hash of ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’. Glynis disliked the cod-philosophy and objected to Jeanette Winterson’s tendency to explain her writing in the ‘did-you-see-what-I-did-there?’ manner of DJ Steve Wright, rather than allowing her readers to draw their own conclusions. Ann LF couldn’t relate to the characters and found the book a depressing read, so much so that after the first few chapters she decided to opt out and turn instead to something more uplifting. Martin LF was also unimpressed; after hearing Jeanette Winterson talk about the book on the radio he was expecting it to be about her search for her birth mother.  However he felt that this was relegated to an afterthought.  He enjoyed the writing about Mrs Winterson, but he questioned the veracity of the piece in places (citing as a ‘for-instance’ the example of Mrs Winterson and her brother; if they had been estranged for many years, then why did she call him from Blackpool and why did he then turn up at the house with a large dog, prepared to turf out intruders on her behalf?) as did David, which led us into an interesting discussion on the nature and definition of memoir. Should one be able to trust that a memoir is ‘true’? If so, what kind of truth are we expecting? Objectivity? Or is all memoir subjective? Emotional truth, then? Yes, but if that is the only ‘truth’ on offer then would not the writer be better turning to fiction?
David thought that Winterson did not give enough time to the influence of the Grammar School and her teachers, and he would have liked to see this time explored in more depth. Glynis, Martin and David were all frustrated with the structure, which jumped twenty five years from her time as an Oxford undergraduate to her breakdown and her subsequent search for her birth mother.

I, on the other hand, decided that I liked the structure. I thought that Winterson’s use of an Intermission between her earlier and later life, and her inclusion of a Coda at the end of the book, had something of the theatrical about it: an opera perhaps, or a ballet. It signaled to me that Winterson might not be writing a faithful-to-the-facts type of memoir (she declares this from the start, ‘Part fact part fiction is what life is’) but that she would be ‘emotionally’ truthful. There was also a certain honesty about her exploration of divided or changeable emotions: ‘she was a monster but she was my monster’. Anyway, I was up for it, because I love an unreliable narrator!

On the whole, I found myself somewhere between the enthusiasts and the critics. I agreed with Glynis about the ‘self-help-book’ passages, which seemed to be concentrated in the opening chapters and I also found the writing occasionally self-aggrandizing, but I liked the intellectual curiosity which would send her off into an exploration of the character of Manchester, or a treatise on slate roofs, or a story about the famous Accrington ‘nori’ brick. And I loved the literary and story-telling references and the adoration of books. The fairy-tale theme of transformation coursed through the writing: size and shape were negotiable (Mrs Winterson in the phone box) and transformation entirely possible. I also liked the quieter moments of honesty (her acknowledgement that the physical violence she exhibited as a child became an emotional violence later, when she deliberately sabotaged budding relationships) and I found her account of her breakdown and recovery powerful and moving.
Like Janet, I found the death of Aunt Nellie very moving – the washing of the body as a lesson in love. Did Winterson worry that she might be seeing her future self if she continued to sabotage her relationships? For me, in the end, the strengths outweighed the faults.

Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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