Burgs Sunday book review
Reviewed by Lyra Rosenfeld of Pilot, who works at the Jessie Peterman Library in Floyd.
Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”, was published in 1985. The author won the prestigious Whitbread award that year, and was hailed by Gore Vidal as “the most interesting writer I have read in the past twenty years”. Her mother dubbed her success “the work of the devil.”
Mrs. Winterson also said that the devil had led her to “the wrong crib” in 1960, when she adopted the newborn Jeanette. She believed her new daughter to be possessed by demons, as evidenced by her crying. In this household young Jeanette was locked outside overnight, beaten, demeaned, and forbidden to read any but a few carefully selected books.
In this latest work, a memoir, the author returns time and again to a truth known to many readers; more so than any hero from any myth, books can rescue you. They can save your life. As soon as she was able, young Jeanette began to borrow, buy, and hide books. “At my most precarious I balanced on a book, and the books rafted me over a tide of feelings that left me soaked and shattered.” Mrs. Winterson was not happy when she found them. She threw Jeanette’s precious books onto the lawn, doused them with paraffin, and lit the lot.
“I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. And books have always been light and warmth to me… In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley. Burnt jigsaws of books. I collected some of the scraps. It is probably why I write as I do – collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative.”
It is the uncertainty of one who carefully examines every aspect of herself and the world around her, always reassessing. “I recognize that life has an inside as well as an outside and that events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.” Thus, she structures her story not by continuity but thematically. Though it may at first appear to be conversational meandering, her pattern of writing is to move carefully about her subject, considering it from many perspectives. Her prose is deeply revelatory and so stunningly beautiful it almost hurts to read it.
Amazingly, she even finds tenderness for Mrs. Winterson. She strives to understand and/or forgive the psychosis of that deeply depressed and fanatical woman. There is compassion for her mother, herself, and for everyone. For the hard work of becoming ourselves: “Growing up is difficult. Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep on growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear … Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world.”
In this quote and throughout the book we return to the titular statement, spoken by Mrs. Winterson when Jeanette left home at the age of sixteen (not long after being subjected to a three-day-long exorcism). The author has spent years contemplating that question: what is happiness (there’s a fascinating section on the etymology of the word), and what is normalcy? With this pivotal query Mrs. Winterson unintentionally gave her daughter a great gift. It has become a touchstone throughout Jeanette’s life. “Why be happy when you could be normal?”
The ending is unresolved, which I like in an autobiography. The last sentence may be the most honest statement I’ve ever read. The author does not claim to have found perfection, far from it. She is simply a woman who has courageously and painfully opened her heart.
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