I’ve heard that her more recent take on the same material Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is even better. If that’s true, I’m in for a truly superlative treat, because I loved this book to the bones. I want to read it again and again to savour its sweet delights.
Maybe Laura Doan’s essay ‘Sexing the Postmodern’, about Winterson’s work and theme development over this and two subsequent novels The Passion and Sexing the Cherry gave me a hunger to read this that made it taste so good (‘hunger is the best sauce’). Maybe I felt along with Jeanette so keenly because working-class northern-ness and being in trouble for being queer and weird are familiar territory. Maybe because I grew up around Christianity from a position of looking on in mixed horror, contempt, admiration and amusement I was primed to laugh at all the jokes.
Being working class, living in scarcity, means sharing space, often uncomfortably. Jeanette and her father go outside to the bathroom for respite. The Sally Army banish Jeanette’s inept tambourinists from their shared concert. Death meets ice cream. Poison meets progress. Unnatural passions.
There is a combination of elastic lightness and looseness of expression that makes for tiggerish bounding jollity, a feast of poetic allusions to lesbian love, and archly spoken cycles through remade mythology and fairytale. I don’t feel this as bildungsroman; Jeanette travels around in her life as in a tableau vivant rather than being changed by or absorbing the world. Revelatory moments and drastic, transformative events seem carved in niches. Jeanette passes them, points them out, sails on.
Without this distancing and the comic tone to leaven, it would probably be an unbearable story. As straight memoir I don’t think I could read it, but of course it’s not straight in any sense, it’s subjectively and structurally queer. It evades the snares of a heterosexist culture and its language by turning them aside: ‘to the pure all things are pure’ cries Jeanette of her love for Melanie, convinced it must, as all good things, be holy.
Perhaps the event has an unassailable truth. God saw it. God knows. But I am not God. And so when someone tells me what they heard or saw, I believe them, and I believe their friend who also saw, but not in the same way, and I can put these accounts together and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own