I feel very lucky to have read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and this newest book by Winterson back to back. I feel that at this moment my thoughts on the book are incredibly disjointed, and if I was having a conversation about it I would bounce all over the place while I remembered different aspects that I enjoyed.
This memoir was so beautifully written, and at times so crushingly sad. My heart ached when she wrote at the beginning of the book on some of the ‘truths’ of Oranges, saying that when she wrote it at age 25 she had to give her childhood self a friend, as it was too painful to acknowledge that she had been entirely alone in the world. Also, the silences are revealing of this pain. I don’t remember reading in Oranges anything about the coal pit or the doorstep and being banished there. They are truly chilling details of neglect that a young woman just was not able to acknowledge without causing significant metal distress. This sort of comment and reflection on self narrative is fascinating, and as a novice oral historian I am terribly interested in the ways that individuals construct and reshape their memories and pasts throughout different stages in their lives.
I have begun folding back the pages of books when I read them, marking the pages I enjoyed and the passages that strike me with beautiful writing or honest observations. This book is almost inflated to twice its size so many pages are folded back.
There is a point in this book where things turn very dramatically. The story shifts from being a conversation and reflection on the past to a portrait of madness and descent into the deepest depression. When it reached this point, with about a quarter of the book to go, I continued reading through the night with Stu laying next to me in bed, my body exhausted from the days work yet my brain intent on staying with her on this dark journey. It was while reading this part of the book that I was the most impacted by the story and by her writing. One section in particular, when she recounted the conversations she was having in the midst of her illness with the voice in her mind, the destructive all-consuming dark part that wanted her to die, was so stunning it made me cry. “A few months later we were having our afternoon walk when I said something about how nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said ‘us’, not ‘you’. She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences. We both sat down and cried. I said, ‘We will learn how to love.’ ”
I felt that in this book Winterson was so honest, sparing herself no humiliation in explaining the truth of her mind, perhaps in an effort to understand it herself.
She also dealt beautifully with madness (I use the word mad with a full appreciation of its weight) and many of the things made me cry for their honesty and for the fact that I have felt very much like that at several points in life. I think her observation “Probably we are less tolerant of madness now than at any period in history. There is no place for it. Crucially, there is no time for it. Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.” cuts to the heart of one of my enduring frustrations with my own mental illness, that it is often compounded by the inflexibility of modern society to accommodate it and that there is very little recognition of the purpose or transformative power of madness. By saying that I don’t wish to minimise how scary it can be to be in the middle of madness, but coming through the other side of it has taught me every worthwhile lesson I have learnt in life.
Another thing I greatly admired was Winterson’s use of poetry and myth to furnish her story. Nobody had ever made me want to read Jung, but I can now see the worth in doing so. Psychoanalysis has always seemed so alienatingly abstract, but I feel as though it added so greatly to her understanding of her own mind and adds a richness to the stories and myths of our common culture.
Something that I loved was her working class appreciation of artistic endeavour and of literature. Her ability to link the old vanished traditions of working class people in the north with high English literature assuaged my near constant guilt for wishing to pursue the understanding of history for its own sake. Not for the sake of vocation, or productivity. Not to be able to answer the question ‘But what are you going to do with it when you finish?’. For the sheer joy of learning and of using my mind to query and analyse and deconstruct meaning in the structures of society in the present and the past.
And yet it was truly an adoption narrative. Of finding home and figuring out where we belong and the core place that identity takes in our life. What is to be admired about Winterson, an observation that my friend Jessi made, was how honest she was about the ending. While adoption narratives are traditionally framed with their happy endings, this one was just honest. She ends with the line “I have no idea what happens next.” and that is just the way that life is. It doesn’t really end until it really ends.
Now reading: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood