When a memoir starts with a title like that, it's apparent it's not going to be all sweetness and light. Particularly when it's fairly quickly on the table that it is Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother who said the titular line. With that established, this is obviously not a slight read, slim though the book may be. But more importantly, I felt like it was interesting but not anything more than a fairly straightforward memoir until about halfway through - and then the book was elevated to another level, became something rawer and truer and tougher and more emotional than I had seen so far. It was like the first half was the backstory we needed to understand the second half, but the second half was the book.
And that tells you pretty much nothing at all. So, in a fairly straightforward linear fashion that will capture nothing of the flavour, the book is about Jeanette Winterson's experiences growing up in a household where she had been adopted by a Pentecostal couple. Her adoptive mother was deeply troubled, prone to depression and anxiety, and who definitely never understood her adopted child. Winterson found solace in books, and we'll come back to that in a minute. She finally moves away/is thrown out of the house over her relationships with other girls her age, and, in an extreme long shot, is accepted at Oxford.
The book then jumps forward decades to a point where a relationship has ended, and she sinks into a psychiatric crisis, detailing her experiences through it in terms amazingly stark and poetic at the same time. This goes hand in hand with her journey with her new partner to discover her birth mother, the agonizing process to do so, and the complexity of those meetings when they eventually occur.
And this second half is where the book takes flight. While the early years are interesting, something happens to her prose when she is talking about her bouts of madness, her efforts to put herself back together, to heal a self that was fractured shortly after birth. I really can't explain it, but it's something you should experience.
There are two themes I want to explore more fully. The first is the lifeline that she found literature to be. Winterson is eloquent in combatting the notion that literature is elitist, that it is somehow only for the rich, and not the poor, and that it doesn't matter if the poor have access to good books, that good books are irrelevant to their existence. She makes a strong case that she would not have survived without her access to a library and her juvenile attempt to read all of "literature," A-Z. Coming from a very working-class home, Winterson is, and I am, infuriated by the notion that reading is the sole preserve of the rich.
The other theme is the need for more complex narratives of adoption and reunion than the joyful, tearful, uncomplicated one that seems to permeate our culture. Winterson makes that call directly, and I think it is an important one. When the narrative is that finding a birth mother or father is the end of struggle, of pain, and the start of an uncomplicated relationship, that does a disservice to everyone who does not find it to be so. They are left out of the literature, left out of the representation, and will find no reflection for themselves. And for people already searching for a sense of heritage, simplistic narratives do no one any good. Winterson's efforts to find her birth mother were difficult, and the new relationship hard to navigate.
I had never read any Jeanette Winterson books before this, although I did and do intend to get to them. This memoir is an interesting way of being introduced to her work, and the second half of it convinced me I need to search out her work sooner rather than later.