Sydney Writers' Festival Review: Jeanette Winterson at Sydney Opera House

18 May 2012

Jeanette Winterson Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Having been to a number of author readings, I was surprised to see that the Concert Hall of the Opera House was set up like it was to host a stand-up comic - completely bare without so much as a lectern, microphone or chair. After an affectionate introduction by the Sydney Writers' Festival Artistic Director, Chip Rolley, the petite Jeanette Winterson appeared, instantly filling the cathedral-like venue with her incredibly likeable personality.

Jeanette not only creates that special bond between reader and author in her writing, but she's also a charming performer, with that rare ability to transport large audiences to an intimate space. We were all welcome visitors in "Winterson's World."

I sheepishly raised my hand when she asked who hadn't read her books, but she assured me that she could save my soul and I would leave a different person. Indeed, Jeanette opened by saying that the Opera House felt "like a gospel tent - I've come home." She was our spiritual leader for the night, sharing her wisdom on life, love and everything in between, including gender politics, the nature of memory and the power of storytelling.

As she read excerpts from her new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? the audience was led through a lonely childhood dominated by her adopted mother - a cold and unloving Pentecostal evangelist whose concept of life was as a "pre-death experience." The title is a direct quote from "Mrs Winterson," the rhetorical question served as her reply to being told her 16-year-old daughter had fallen in love with a woman. This exchange was followed by an unsuccessful exorcism and Jeanette leaving home.

Jeanette's narrative voice is sharp and funny, although almost every memory shared was seemingly entrenched in pain and heartache. My favourite anecdotes included Mrs Winterson's convincing re-telling of Jane Eyre, in which the protagonist doesn't return to Mr Rochester but instead runs off with Sinjin Rivers to work as a missionary and the household's apocalypse rehearsals, complete with Mrs Winterson on the bugle with everyone filing into the cupboard stocked with canned corned beef.

Jeanette's reflections on life and storytelling were closely intertwined. She said that there are only three possible endings to a story - revenge, tragedy or forgiveness. Forgiveness, as an act of memory, is the only action that allows us to move on. It is clear that writing is a soul baring, cathartic experience for Jeanette, and I felt privileged that I was able to share the journey with her.

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208

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