‘Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson

In ‘Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?’ published in 2011, Jeanette Winterson revisits the same territory she mined for her first 2013-03-18 08.12.37novel, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, 25 years ago.  For this book though, she says she has written something more truthful, without some of the lighter moments in the earlier one, because  ‘Oranges…’ was the story she could live with at the time.  Now, as an older, perhaps wiser author, she can write both more of the harshness of her childhood, but she can also view some of the people in it with more sympathy.

Adopted as a baby Jeanette Winterson was raised in a strict, eccentric, Pentecostal household in Accrington, north of Manchester in the 1960s and 70s.  Her mother, referred to throughout as Mrs Winterson, was a larger than life enthusiast for stories of the Apocalypse and the many roads to eternal damnation, who repeatedly told the child Jeanette that the Devil had led them to the wrong crib at the orphanage, and kept a gun in the duster drawer and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.

It’s a vivid story, and I can remember many of the scenes from reading ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ not long after it was published, or it might be that I am recalling the snippets from the BBC TV dramatisation of it, when Geraldine McEwan portrayed the monstrous, but not altogether unsympathetic mother.

In ‘Why be Happy when You Can be Normal?’ Jeanette Winterson is now also able to be more sympathetic to the older woman, whom she recognises as larger than the life she had to occupy, and trapped by it, and that Jeanette herself  may not have been the most suitable child for her, echoing the image of ‘the wrong crib’.  Having said that, the portrait of Mrs Winterson is of a powerfully unhappy woman, who was generally mean to everyone around her; a person who could say the line ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ when Jeanette, as a teenager, told her that being in love with a girl made her happy.

This is not a conventional autobiography, as although it might look like one for the first half, as soon as the young Jeanette reaches Oxford, the story stops, and jumps forward at least 20 years, to the almost contemporary telling of the author’s decision to try to locate her birth mother.  There were moments in the description of this arduous process that brought tears to my eyes, even though I was sitting perched, waiting, in a bus stop on a dark, chilly evening.  There were also passages where I became very impatient with her; with tales of lost loves and tempestuous relationships, she tells us that she has never received any love, and has been a perpetual outsider, while to my eye it looked like she had received a great deal of love, but had not known what to do with it.

Towards the very end of the book, though, she does seem to have come around to this realisation herself; perhaps encouraged by insights gained through her relationship with the psychologist Susie Orbach.  Orbach’s influence may also account for some of the psychologically analytical passages the author includes in the latter chapters of the book.

I think you can see that this is an honest attempt by Winterson to understand her life and her experiences and their effect on her character and view of the world, exposing even unflattering things about herself, and yet, given the loyalty of her friends and the history of her relationships, she is clearly a more likeable person that the construct she had created in this book.

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5 Comments

  1. Hi, Rowena, I usually prefer fiction to memoir, but this time round I preferred Why be happy to Oranges, although both were brilliant. I was interested on what you said about her not coming across as very likeable, as it reminds me of some current (trusted) feedback on my narrator of my novel, who gets nicer as she is able to feel the love of those around her (quite like the idea of my character being like Jeanette Winterson). But it genuinely is like that for people who have such a difficult start in life with inadequate parental affection, it takes an awfully long time to recognise the love that might be staring them in the face.

    Reply
    • Hi Anne, the question of likeability in fictional characters is one I too find very interesting. I think the idea of a person becoming more likeable as they accept the love of others is a very believable character arc. In many ways what is remarkable about Jeanette Winterson is that she emerged from her childhood with any sense of herself at all, altho the desire to escape can be a very powerful motivator. The thing that I think I reacted to in the writing was that as she describes herself it sounds to me that she would be difficult to be friends with, and yet that is clearly not the case as she has many long standing and supportive friendships.

      Reply
  2. I find her fiction interesting, but loved ‘Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery’.Jx

    Reply
    • Many thanks for visiting and commenting – and for that recommendation, which I haven’t read…… my to be read pile grows taller every day!

      Reply
  1. Why be happy when you can be normal? | seventhvoice

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