The bones of this book are made from the Bible. Yet it is also constructed from the joyous shredding of beliefs, when Jeanette starts to question her religious upbringing by her Pentecostal parents.
Religion? You might say. Religion; today the cause of wars, shootings and fear. Religion; a burden on society that is as addictive as it is dangerous. Why would I want to read about something like this? I’ve enough of it in the skirting the tabloids next to gruesome photojournalism. Why should you read this? Because it’s hilarious. It opens with the frank lines; “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what.” There is an honesty behind these words, a vivid way that the characters are illustrated that it seems like the story can be nothing but genuine. It follows Jeanette’s childhood, where her predominant influences were her strict (adopted) mother, driving her to be a missionary and the local church community. Initially homeschooled, legal obligations forced her to school;
‘”Why do you want me to go?’ I asked her the night before. “Because if you don’t go I will go to prison” … “But if you go to prison you’ll get out again. St Paul was always going to prison.” “I know that” (she cut the bread firmly, so that only the tiniest squirt of potted beef oozed out) … “but the neighbours don’t. Eat this and be quiet.”‘
Jeanette struggled with fitting in with her decidedly non-Christian classmates, as well as with desire, when she falls in love with one of the girls at the Church. At sixteen, she is forced to decide between religion and love, family or girlfriend. And the question that rages in Jeanette’s mind is; why can’t I have both?
Personally, I do think that there is a slight inequality in the amount of male and female characters, but given that this is a book about matriarchy in society and lesbian love, there isn’t much room for omnipresent male characters…. maybe not such an appalling thing, actually. (It’s worth mentioning that there are a few but they’re more secondary/ tertiary characters, hence the visibility of this ‘inequality’.) It doesn’t detract from the quality of the plot though, even if the storyline is more thought-provoking pace than action packed.
One issue, however, was the slight irrelevance of the myth theme of Percival which was introduced; it did offer variation from the wintry grey industrial scene, and it was an unusual way to represent Jeanette’s story (I presume that’s what it was), however it did appear to be part of the novel as a mystical exciting feature, rather than something which was actively contributing to the story.
The wonderful thing about this was observing the transformation of Jeanette, and the way her comically awkward tone dominated her perspective of childhood. Although it’s set in the drab Midlands, this novel is a sparkling example of fiction at its finest. Like all novels, there’s an interesting reflection of author in it, too: the fact that the protagonist has the same name is the author is not the only similarity- the novel is actually based on Winston’s own upbringing, where she explores her childhood by turning herself into a fictional character.
Anyway, generally a great 20th century novel that is worth the title of a classic. If you’re a literature fan, then you should have read this by now (!), so I recommend this specifically to teenagers, mainly because the book discusses the pressures of conformity. A pressure they are no doubt familiar with, so reading this might just be an eye-opener on the topic.