Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Pursuit of Happiness

I had the pleasure of hearing Jeanette Winterson speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival last month and during her presentation she gave brief insights into her life. After her session she signed a copy of her memoir for me. Without knowing what to expect, I have read - no, devoured - her book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011) and absolutely loved it.

The title of the book comes from a question her adoptive mother, Mrs Winterson, asked her at age 16 when she was given an impossible choice. The teenage Jeanette could continue to see her girlfriend or remain in the family home; she could not do both. Jeanette tried to explain that her girlfriend made her happy, and chose to promptly leave home to live in cars and campgrounds before heading to Oxford to study literature.

Adopted at six weeks old by the devout Mrs Winterson and her husband, Jeanette never belonged. Her mother was monsterous and it is a wonder that she adopted at all. She told her daughter that she came from 'the wrong crib' and that she should have adopted another child. Jeanette was never held, hugged, comforted. Rather she was put in the coal hold, or left to sleep on the front stoop when she misbehaved.

Books and reading was not encouraged (except for the Bible). Her mother's concern was that 'you never know what is in a book until it is too late'.  Jeanette found solace in the books she discovered at the library, beginning her reading at A and working alphabetically towards Z. She discovered poetry and Shakespeare and, through reading, began to discover herself.

Meanwhile she endured her difficult childhood, including an attempted exorcism, before leaving home. But I don't want to give the impression that this is a Mommy Dearest story of brutality - there is tremendous humour and love amidst the angst. Her conversational tone, the pace at which the story is told, and the honesty of her voice makes for a remarkably beautiful memoir.

Winterson, Sydney May 2016
Winterson achieves success as a writer - first with Oranges are Not The Only Fruit (1985), The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry (1989), Written on the Body (1992) and so on. When the BBC filmed Oranges and Winterson achieved much acclaim for the script she called home seeking acknowledgement of her success, to get none.

From her early thirties she skips ahead 25 years, deliberately leaving out those difficult decades where she struggled to find the happiness she hoped for. She concludes with chapters about her marriage to Susie Orbach, her attempts to find her birth parents and her coming to terms with her past. The story ends by returning to central themes - hope and the possibility of love. I'd like to think she has found what she has spent her life searching for.