Jeanette Winterson achieved literary fame at the age of 25, with her first work Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which was later very successfully adapted for television. It is a novel yet is largely autobiographical.

Winterson described it as ‘experimental’. It tells the story of her upbringing, having been adopted as a baby by a couple who were strongly evangelical Christians and wanted to raise her to be a missionary.

Her mother was dominant and domineering. The book opens with these two sentences: “Like most people I lived a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what.”

As Jeannette grew up she did not question her home life, though it was very different from that of most other children. Everything revolved around the Pentecostal Church and its members, and she participated enthusiastically. But in adolescence she fell in love with another young girl. To her mother this could only mean she had been possessed by demons. Jeanette left home at 16, desperate to escape.

Her 2011 novel, ,‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?,’ returns to stories of her upbringing and I think is an even better book than the more famous Oranges…

It too starts arrestingly: “When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’”

Despite suffering a lack of parental love and an altogether strange childhood, Winterson recalls events and conversations with great humour: “There was an iron bedstead heaped with lumpy eiderdowns – the kind that were only ever stuffed with one duck.”

Her mother emerges as impossible and appalling. “If anyone knocked at the door she …shoved the poker through the letter box.” On the annual holiday in Blackpool “My mother sat in a deckchair most of the day reading …about Hell.”

Jeanette was a precocious reader, having been taught by her mother to read from the Book of Deuteronomy. But she was not allowed to bring books into the house. She secretly did after discovering the literature section of Accrington Public Library, where she began reading the classic authors alphabetically and by sixteen had got as far as ‘M’.

Both books are about identity, belonging and rejection; about compliance and rebellion; and about love and its absence. They are moving and vivid accounts of self-discovery.

Reading was Jeanette Winterson’s road to independence and freedom, and to her writing career. She makes this observation in ‘Why Be Happy…’: “Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there... The wider we read the freer we become.”

It is more interesting to read books set in other times and in other places, and about people different from ourselves. Would you rather live in a room with a mirror or a window?

Lance Christopher

PS Books can be bought as paper copies, or as eBooks via Kindle, and can also be borrowed digitally and, once the coronavirus lockdown has passed, as print copies, from Wiltshire libraries.

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