“Why be Happy when You can be Normal?” by Jeanette Winterson...

This is an extraordinary autobiography. It feels like a novel because of the vivid and persistent way she presents her mother to whom she only refers as “Mrs Winterson.” The latter is impossibly mad and cruel and just plain weird. And yet you believe that this is Jeanette’s mother or at least her adoptive mother. Her biological mother was “a little red thing from out of the Lancashire looms…from the village of Blakely where Queen Victoria had her wedding dress made.” One can hardly imagine the writer would have been worse off had she not been adopted; sure, her real mother was just 17 years old and probably living in penury but at least she might have been loved. Mrs Winterson, if one wished to be compassionate, could be said to have been capable, to a modest degree and in a very odd fashion, of loving Jeanette but she certainly failed miserably to understand her. One instance of this abject incompetence relates to book-reading: “It never occured to [my mother] that I fell into the books – that I put myself inside for safe-keeping.” This failing is especially significant when we read that her mother burned all her books. And this is just an example of how Mrs Winterson failed as a mother even back in the 60s when things were not as touchy-feely and PC as now. While “there were plenty of kids who didn’t get fed properly” there must have been few enough who were locked in the “coal-hole” or outside on the front door step all night. There isn’t time here to offer a definite inventory of Mrs Winterson’s parental transgressions; suffice to say that neither Jeanette nor her father believed for a moment that Mrs Winterson would be happy in...

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr May10

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr...

“A Month in the Country” recounts the time our hero Tom Birkin spent restoring a mural in an old church in Oxgodby. He’s a veteran of The Great War and hasn’t come away from it unscathed. The work excites him and seems to be just what he needs perhaps to recover from the war but also to satisfy his innate need for solitude. Having learnt the trade from Joe Watterson who’d told him, “It’s a profession, my boy,” one that would allow him to “starve without competition.” Birkin lands a job from Reverend J.G. Keach by whose wife Birkin is enchanted. The Reverend doesn’t attempt to conceal his contempt, if not for Birkin then for his work. The money could be better spent elsewhere. Nonetheless the job opens up a world of sorts for Birkin not least because of the attentions of some compassionate and welcoming locals such as the teenaged girl Kathy Ellerbeck. Oxgodby is beautifully bucolic and Carr gives it due regard in the language. There’s something very English about both Carr’s and Birkin’s love of the countryside and it seems especially poignant in light of what Englishmen suffered just a couple of years before in France. Some of the description is idyllic: “Why the place was a latter-day Eden!” More of it is gothic: “the hair rose on my neck and I turned with utmost reluctance, really afraid of what I might see…[the cat] had a fluttering song-thrush clamped in its bloody jaws and glared through the window, malevolently eyeing each of us in turn.” More than once does nature (in the form of tree branches) encroach on civilisation by pressing against windows. Objects are imbued with a strange sadness; the dysfunction in relationships is obliquely adverted to; the war is...