“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is the first memoir by Jeanette Winterson, even though her books generally contain elements of autobiography. The memoir is a response to her first work of fiction, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” which, when she wrote it more than twenty-five years ago, launched her into literary fame and eventually became a BBC mini-series.
Winterson, who revisits the themes of experience, biography, fiction and feminism, explains that her first book was partly a challenge to the perception that women are writers of experiential—and thus less masterful—fiction. Winterson’s goal was to express both “experience and experiment.” It’s with something like horror that any devotee of “Oranges” will read, “I told my version—faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time. I told myself as a hero like any shipwreck story… And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is ‘Oranges,’ is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”
In her memoir, Winterson expands on her life story of being adopted by a fanatical Pentecostal couple as a baby. Her evangelical mother, referred to as “Mrs. Winterson,” is a cruel woman, possibly mentally ill and shockingly hateful to her adopted daughter. Winterson, without going into great detail, refers to being locked in a coal cellar and locked out of the house all night. She develops a thick skin and a refusal to break, but, not surprisingly, spends the rest of her life distrustful of people, almost incapable of accepting love.
She does find solace in literature. Most books were banned in her house, except a bizarre few handpicked by Mrs. Winterson, but she goes to the local library, working her way through the “ENGLISH LITERATURE IN PROSE A-Z” section. Poetry and literature lend her the temerity to survive her childhood. Winterson writes, “So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”
When Mrs. Winterson finds a stash of books under Jeanette’s bed and throws them out the window and lights them on fire, the response of a young woman who had learned to use language and prose like a weapon was like a battle cry: “‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.’”
When Winterson reached the age of sexual maturity and began to realize she was attracted to women, the mother kicked her out of the house. She followed her love of literature and managed to get into Oxford University despite her working-class background and lack of resources. Although free from her abusive childhood home, the impact of her upbringing continued to affect her relationships. Winterson writes about the challenges of coming to terms with her history with brutal honesty. The sting of her adopted mother telling her that she picked the “wrong crib” makes her feel unwanted well into her adulthood. Her adopted mother asks her an audacious question with real curiosity, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” It’s only with great trepidation the she begins a search for her birth mother.
With amazing frankness, Winterson writes about “hearing voices” and how a “creature” lives inside her. That voice that tells so many of us we aren’t good enough shouted at Winterson in the form of her own horrific image. What it means for her to be an author from an industrial north England town, what it means to be a woman writer, and the defense of her style are all elegantly and thoughtfully explored. Winterson easily navigates her history through past and present, balancing her captivating narrative with insightful theoretical commentary. This memoir is a must-read for Winterson fans as well as a perfect introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the work of this important, brilliant writer. (Kelly Roark)
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”
By Jeanette Winterson
Grove Press, 224 pages, $25