Jeanette Winterson, author of "Why Be Happy When You Could...

Jeanette Winterson, author of "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" (Grove Press, March 2012). Credit: Peter Peitsch

WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL?, by Jeanette Winterson. Grove Press, 230 pp., $25.

When Jeanette Winterson was 16 years old, in the mid-1970s, she left her home, and the woman who shaped her -- her powerfully paranoid evangelical Christian adoptive mother. From the industrial north of England, Winterson got herself to Oxford University and then, still in her mid-20s, published "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," the strong, funny, sometimes terrifying coming-of-age novel that made her a literary celebrity.

As Winterson, now in her early 50s, writes in her new memoir, "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?," "Oranges" was a "version" of her childhood -- "faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time." The novel, she says, was "a story I could live with. The other [real] one was too painful. I could not survive it." Now, prompted by a nervous breakdown and a search for her other family origins, she has told this story again.

Winterson was beaten as a child and "learned early never to cry." But she was tough: "If I was locked out overnight, I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother and walked to school." Most books other than the Bible were forbidden. When her mother discovered some novels Jeanette had managed to collect and hide, she made a bonfire of them in their yard. Raised to be a missionary, Winterson was a faithful member of her parents' Pentecostal church, but when she fell in love with another girl, she was subjected to a violent "exorcism": "no food or heat for three days" and "beaten repeatedly by one of the elders."

"Why Be Happy" is a meditation on loss, stories and silences. It is also, inevitably, a portrait of the woman she calls Mrs. Winterson. "Mrs. Winterson was an obsessive." She believed that the universe was a "cosmic dustbin." A large woman, physically, she was also, to her traumatized daughter, "out of scale, larger than life. . . . Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself." She didn't like her body, refused to sleep with her husband, threw her wedding ring away, and at age 37 acquired a baby: "A burping, spraying, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life."

"Blasting the house" of literature with "rude life" is not a bad description of the rough gleam of this book. "Unhappy families are conspiracies of silence," Winterson writes. "The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself." Such forgiveness is her task here and it, along with Winterson's early training as a preacher, accounts for some of the book's exhortatory energy.

It is a tendency Winterson is aware of: She describes herself, after "Oranges" was published, "standing in a phone box giving her [mother] a lecture on literature, a polemic on feminism." That energy is just right in passionate writing about the necessity of literature in the lives of working-class men and women, about the educative force of the church she grew up in, and more. It falls flat in grandiloquent passages about her own work, or in descriptions of her struggle that she frames as universal truths.

If the first half of the book is her attempt to grapple with Mrs. Winterson's "intimate and impressive" presence, the second half is a quest narrative -- an anguished search for her birth mother by a writer who acknowledges her debt to the Grail mythology. I will not reveal the outcome of this search. I will say that its contours are often riveting and that Winterson, who is also describing her nervous breakdown and its aftermath, is trying to grapple with what it means to be exactly like and utterly unlike both of her mothers: the one who brought her up and the one who gave birth to her then gave her up. She wants to give both women their due.

The ending of the book is beautifully open: "I have no idea what happens next," she writes.

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