Memories of mothers lost and regained

Why be Happy When You
Could be Normal?
By Jeanette Winterson.
Cape. Pages 230. £14.99.

Reviewed by Arifa Akbar

WHEN Jeanette Winterson was 16, her adoptive mother arranged an exorcism after discovering that her daughter was romantically involved with a girl. Her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges are not the only Fruit, dramatised this moment as a failed but harrowing attempt to break her will and restore her to "normality".

This memoir, written more than a quarter of a century later, sets the scene for another kind of psychic exorcism, as Winterson tries to make peace both with Constance Winterson, the "monster" mother of her childhood, and the spectre of the biological mother who gave her away when she was around six weeks old. There has been a dramatic inversion in the status of the two mothers since the publication of Oranges are not the only Fruit: the adoptive mother who once loomed so large is now dead and unreachable, while the long-lost biological one, who was thought to be deceased, turns out to be living in Manchester.

Around half of the book retraces familiar ground and may be more shocking for those who happened to miss the great stir that her bold debut caused in 1985. For the initiated, it remains compelling, in fact, perhaps more so when compared to the fictionalised version written by Winterson as a 25-year-old. Now comes this emotional excavation as a 52-year-old looking back with a cooler, more forgiving eye.

The specifics of her early abuse is vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for its familiarity. We read of Wintersonís shivering incarceration in the coal-hole to which she was regularly banished, her motherís end-of-the-world sermonising and her parting, titular words as she left home, aged 16, when she declared herself happy in love with a girl. "Why be happy," replied her mother, "when you could be normal?"

While "Mrs W" appears no less a fruitcake ó she is a fanatical, born-again Pentecostal Christian with a morbid interest in the Apocalypse and a farrago of undiagnosed psychoses ó there is great pathos in Wintersonís reflections. If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her. ó The Independent