Review of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson


This is an autobiography about Jeanette Winterson’s unusual and destructive childhood that was partly covered in her fictional version, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She was adopted by the Winterson’s, who were Pentecostalists. That could still, of course, worked out just fine – except that Mrs Winterson was very disappointed with Jeanette almost from the start when she proved to be baby that cried a lot… And from there it slid away into disaster. Mostly because you wouldn’t want to let Mrs Winterson near any breathing being – and the thought of having the small child depicted on the cover of the book at her mercy makes me feel queasy.

When Jeanette finally left home at sixteen, because she was in love with a woman, Mrs Winterson asked her, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

This book is the story of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories about a girl locked out of home, sitting on the whybehappydoorstep all night; about a tyrant in the place of a mother, who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a northern industrial town now changed beyond recognition, part of a community now vanished; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how the painted past Jeanette Winterson thought she had written over and repainted returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother. It is also a book about other people’s stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft which supports us when we are sinking.

The blurb makes some big claims for this book – which, after all, isn’t terribly long – only 229 pages, and not particularly densely printed at that. However, Jeanette Winterson’s sharp, vitally intelligent and considered account is all of the above and more… There is the chippy resolve not to be annihilated that comes across so strongly in Oranges, along with the flashes of humour. However, this is a darker reality than the fictionalised version. Jeanette was far more isolated and bitterly aware of being unlovable and while some of Mrs Winterson’s more extreme behaviour tips into apparent farce, I was more shaken than inclined to laugh.

What this book isn’t, though, is one of the misery memoirs that hit the shelves a few years back. Jeanette Winterson would rather rip her tongue out by the roots than have her readers pity her – mostly because whatever else she did, she didn’t go around pitying herself. She was far too busy questing for books and finding ways to survive Mrs Winterson’s depressive and self-destructive attitude to Life. Indeed, she appeared to not only survive, but outright thrive once she fought free of Accrington. After getting herself into an Oxford college – a feat in itself back at a time when Oxbridge weren’t so scaldingly aware of the damaging faultlines in providing a first class education to only the privileged few – she produced a best-selling, award-winning book at a time when many of her contemporaries were still trying to learn how to survive on their own.

However, this isn’t a fairy story. This is reality – and the hard fact is that being told, ‘The Devil lead me to the wrong crib,’ leaves wounds. And while Jeanette managed to use reading and later, writing, to keep herself from sinking, the time finally came when the damage caught up with her. She describes her descent into madness (her word for it) with her customary honesty, as well as the gritted effort and the role of writing a children’s book in helping her find a way out. She also describes her search for her real mother – and once more, we are aware that this is not the soft-focused, effusively emotional business we are used to seeing on tv programmes.

However, don’t take my word for it – this is a book that has so much packed into it, it deserves being read at least once by anyone who’s had a bumpy childhood. You’ll come away feeling empowered and admiring.

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