“Some folks say I’m a fool, but there’s more to this world than meets the eye.” I waited quietly.
“There’s this world,” she banged the wall graphically, “and then there’s this world,” she thumped her chest. “If you want to make sense of either, you have to take notice of both.”
If you follow me on Instagram (this is not a shameless plug except it totally is, feel free to follow me) you’ll know already that I discovered this book almost by accident: my first assignment for a Literary Translation module at the University of Exeter was to translate the first few paragraphs of the book. Just a couple of lines in, and I was in love. The protagonist’s mother was memorable, there was a promising mother-daughter relationship to be explored and the style was concise and drily humorous. Having now finished the book, I can say I wasn’t wrong: this novel is an absolute page turner, written in a vibrant and poetic narrative style and offering an insightful peek in a deeply human story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
The plot is pretty straightforward: the novel follows the formative years of Jeanette (the book is indeed at least partially autobiographic), who was adopted into a fundamentalist Christian family in Manchester. The father is as present as my relatives when it’s time to do the washing up after a massive family get-together (i.e. non-existent) and the mother is… well, the mother just is. Describing her in a few words would be almost impossible, but if you’ve watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, just think of Rebecca’s mother, except on steroids. She is strong, stern, fierce. She believes in God without harbouring any doubt or weakness. With a sharp personality and a brash attitude, she sees the world in black and white: either you’re holy, or you’re a sinner. There’s no in between, no mitigating circumstance, no room for forgiveness or understanding. Jeanette has faith in her mother, the type of blind faith that only children can have. And indeed, what this book does excellently, I believe, is showing the transition between childhood and adulthood and especially from thinking your parents are God on Earth and always right, to understanding they too are human beings, with faults and weaknesses. And showing how, ultimately, they too can betray and hurt you – maybe more deeply than anybody else.
For Jeanette this happens when she falls in love with a girl, Melanie, and her whole world turns upside down. The veil is pierced and she can finally see friends and enemies for who they truly are; her mother, unfortunately, falls in the latter category. I won’t spoil you what happens because the plot in the second half of the books becomes very gripping! What I can tell you, though, is that on the key themes of the novel is the concept of story: why and how do we tell stories? Do they have to be objective and factual to be true? And how can we be objective and factual when we’re necessarily tied to our own points of view, to our beliefs and needs? The easy answer is: we can’t. But that is, in some cases, okay.
That is the way with stories; we can make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. […] The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots.
The other main theme is, as one would expect, family. The concept of “chosen family” is quite common in LGBT+ stories, mainly because their protagonists often get estranged by their own families and therefore have to create a new one, made of friends and lovers. Because family is first and foremost your safety net, a group of people who you believe will always be on your side, no matter what. But what happens when they do (using a key word in the novel) betray you? Winterson sets out to explore the story of those who can’t leave their own family, however hurt and betrayed they have been by its members. Jeanette finds herself irreversibly tied to her mother, with both sides firm in their beliefs (or, in Jeanette’s case, in her need to be true to who she is) but at the same time unable to cut ties. It is intense, dramatic and painfully true to life.
Families, real ones, are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own; she had tied a thread around my button, to tug when she pleased.
The novel makes an extensive use of tales and myths as metaphors. Some of them are drawn from popular mythology (like the myth of King Arthur) some others are invented by the author from scratch. On the one hand this give the prose an almost dream-like quality at times. On the other hand, the narration is sometimes borderline feverish. What I mean by that is that how those metaphors relate to the main story was in some cases very much obscure to me, as were some passages where the narrator made statements I couldn’t really understand, even in context. I’m sure the fact that English is my second language had something to do with it, but I also believe the novel was knowingly cryptic at times.
All in all, however, I believe this novel was one of the most interesting reads of 2018 for me! I would especially recommend it if you like novels centred on family relationships (especially difficult mother-daughter ones), introspective prose, LGBT+ fiction and if you liked Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton!
This is M signing out for now ✨