Book Review

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)

This is a long review – I loved this memoir so much, and I found it hard to cut it down and make my thoughts about it coherent. I could have included 20 more stunning quotes but it might have been a bit much. So here it is:

“Why be happy when you could be normal?” This is the question asked by Connie Winterson as she evicts her teenage daughter Jeanette from the house after finding out she is in another relationship with a woman. As recounted and re-imagined in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Mrs Winterson had felt the need to purge the sin of homosexuality from her daughter through exorcism, a three day incarceration, and beatings. Jeanette’s simple insistence that loving and being loved by women makes her happy evidently confuses her mother, hence the question.

This memoir is intended to be a companion piece to Oranges, that first, groundbreaking work by Winterson.

“I suppose 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.”

Together, they provide a general ‘shape’ of the writer’s early experience – in particular her sexuality and her relationship with her mother, a relationship made more complex by her adoption.

To say that the relationship between Jeanette and Connie is strained would be an understatement. The rift between them emerged long before Jeanette’s sexual awakening. Mrs Winterson’s personality was simultaneously simple (enjoying trips to eat beans on toast at a local café with Jeanette) and unbearably unpredictable (she kept a revolver in a drawer, and would sometimes disappear for a few days without warning), which meant that Jeanette felt on edge and out of place from her earliest memories. Why Be Happy is a powerful account of a mother and daughter trying to come to terms with their differences, to negotiate their way through them to form a relationship.

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This narrative of motherhood and daughterhood is twofold: as an adoptee, Jeanette feels shadowed by her ‘first mother’, and her ‘first self’, who have been overwritten by her life with the Wintersons. Her search for a mother, and a mother’s love, centres on the two women – one present, one absent, but always connected, and always affecting her own sense of herself. The memoir is not just a chronological journey from who she was then to who she is now. It’s a reflection on the many versions of who she could have been. Who might she have been if she had not been adopted? What might she have been like if she had been adopted by a different family or if the Wintersons had been different? It’s incredibly emotive – you really get a sense of Winterson laying herself bare here.

While much of the memoir is extremely harrowing – remembering abuse, neglect, acute periods of confusion and doubt – Winterson also captures some striking humour. Some is derived from observing the simple eccentricities of herself and those around her, such as the absurdity of her mother wearing a heated corset that beeped when it got too hot.

There’s also a lot of dark, gallows humour.

“The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection.”

While this helps give the narrative and the reader some moments of relief from the more upsetting moments, it’s also realistic. Even in the darkest of hours, there can be things that make us laugh.

I really loved the diversions into her thoughts about literature and identity, whether it’s her first encounters with poetry, or certain authors, or explorations of certain ideas. The musings about writing (and reading) and its ability to help us come to terms with our own lives are very touching, and it really made me consider how we approach literature as a form of escape.

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For a young Jeanette, visiting the library (in secret) and working her way through ‘English Literature A-Z’ was a reprieve from the intensity of her home, where only 6 books (including the bible) were considered appropriate. After being evicted, she works hard to achieve a place at Oxford to read English Literature – her determination, and her reading, allow her a literal escape from her bleak beginnings.

Winterson’s style and use of language is stunning.

“When I was born I became the visible corner of a folded map. The map has more than one route. More than one destination. The map that is the unfolding self is not exactly leading anywhere. The arrow that says YOU ARE HERE is your first coordinate.”

It might be the English Literature student in me wanting to analyse everything, but there’s something so wonderful about that image. It’s simultaneously hopeful and wary of the lack of a set course for life.

The structure, mirroring the self Winterson is attempting to memorialise, is fragmented. There is a loose attempt to follow a chronological framework, beginning with early childhood memories, then moving through teenage years, university life, and her early success with Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Then there is a stark 25 year jump forward, to the discovery of her adoption papers among her father’s belongings – the first time seeing anything relating to her ‘first self’ results in a psychological crisis. It genuinely feels in these sections like she’s writing ‘live’, remembering it so intensely that she writes almost haphazardly (sometimes almost in note form). Reading it, I felt so immersed in her experience – as though I was literally watching her identity fall apart – it was taking my breath away.

What I really loved about Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the balance she is able to achieve: it’s harrowing, but ultimately, it’s hopeful. In recording this trauma, Winterson writes another version of herself – the version that until then she had not been able to accept or understand. In many ways, through this work, it seems like she is finally able to make peace with her beginnings, with her adoption, and her adoptive family. She shows people at their worst moments, but reminds us that they’re human.

What I found most important about this memoir, though, is that it’s a powerful testament to Jeanette’s survival.

Thanks so much for reading!

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