‘For most of my life I’ve been a bare knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned never to cry…’
This quote from early in the memoir shows both Winterson’s tough response to her brutal upbringing, and focuses on some key themes: the damage it caused both to her identity and her teenage and adult relationships. This memoir is a striking and wrenching account of Winterson’s response to the brutalities and injustices of her childhood. The ‘troubled childhood’ memoir is a common one, but in the hands of a fine writer, with the perceptive intellect of Jeanette Winterson, it becomes an exploration of identity and the nature of experience. It is the author’s quest to find a better life and a stable sense of self.
‘What I want does exist if I dare to find it…’
This gut wrenching process of coming to maturity took place in the context of living with an adoptive mother who had serious mental health issues – ‘My mother’s eyes were like cold stars. She belonged to a different sky.’ But for each of the brutalities and abuses suffered by the author, she mustered responses of great resilience and courage. After one particularly dramatic event she concludes, ‘only what is inside you is safe.’ Following further trauma she reflects:
‘I needed lessons in love. I still do because nothing could be simpler, nothing could be harder than love.’
Winterson finds much needed solace, then a life purpose, in narratives and creative writing, at the local library: ‘The library was my door to elsewhere.’ By reading through the A-Z fiction section of the Accrington public library, she discovers a community of fellow feeling, who share the love and power of words to transform her life.
‘I began to realize that I had company. Writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways and castaways. These writers were my friends. Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.’
Winterson’s penetrating writing style and powerful sensibility make this memoir a mesmerising, edgy and confronting read; a book full of decisive personal insights, raw emotion, penetrating social observations and disturbing events. I was left with nothing but admiration for her ability not only to endure, but to reconstruct her personality and character, to become a more loving person and a widely admired writer of significance. Now I am keen to seek out and live in the fictional worlds, which derive from such a life.
‘In my work I found a way to talk about love – and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.’