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

Why Be Happy

In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.

This book is that story’s the silent twinIt is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.

Jeanette Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is largely inspired by her childhood. Her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? tells the other side of the story. That what was left out. It took me a long time to read this memoir. I started it four times, not because it’s not good, but because reading it was painful. The first part, until Jeanette leaves home at 16 and her mother asks her the question that has become the title of the book, is painful and disturbing for many reasons. The wit and the humor she uses to describe her awful childhood made me shudder. Shudder because I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how you could live through so much pain and not go crazy, to write a book at 21 and become famous and leave it all behind. I was glad she proved to be so resilient, but it made me uneasy. I kept on thinking: When is it going to happen? When will she break down? Is that still in the future? I don’t think that you can survive a childhood like Winterson’s and not break down eventually. It’s just a matter of time.The second part of the book deals with what came much later. Jeanette Winterson’s descent into madness (her terms), her breakdown and attempted suicide in 2008. Reading that felt like entering a freshly aired room. I know this may sound weird, but the beginning made me choke. I couldn’t believe that she’d left it all behind and only when I read about the descent into madness, did I finally feel glad for her. Now she can move on.

Jeanette Winterson was adopted by the Wintersons when she was 6 months old. She was never told who her real parents were and her mother always said that the devil led them to the wrong crib, meaning she would have liked another child, a nicer child. This is such a typical statement from a woman like Mrs Winterson who is a depressed zealot and always utters half-truths in bible-inspired metaphor. Jeanette Winterson says that all of her books start with individual meaningful sentences and we see where that comes from. Her mother often only says one dark ominous sentence over and over again. Sometimes without any apparent connection to what just happens or what was just said. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . .”, “It’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead and a fault to nature . . . ” Uttered without any context or referring to very mundane things like the gas oven blowing up, these sentences are either creepy or hilarious.

Winterson grew up in the North of England, near Manchester and she loves this part of the country, lovingly tells us about its history, which is quite interesting. The Wintersons are not only religious fanatics but working class and her mother is so suspicious of books that she confiscates and burns all of those Jeanette has been hiding.

Punishment is frequent and comes in different forms. Either Jeanette is beaten or left outside all night and day, on the door step, even in winter.

When she falls in love with a girl, and Mrs W finds out, they perform an exorcism. Jeannette finally leaves at 16. She only returns once, when she’s studying in Oxford and things go very wrong. That’s the last time she sees her mother.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t an easy book to write about. I marked so many passages and sentences that hardly any page is left white. Jeanette Winterson has a way with words that is amazing. Although I don’t always agree, I find the sentences, many of which are used in her novels, arresting.

In her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson paints her mother like a giantess and in her memoir she says she was too large for her circumstances. I was puzzled that there was no explanation whatsoever why Mrs W was the way she was. Mean, fanatic, abusive, depressed and just plain crazy. She had her dreams and her wishes, but smothered them. She lived as if she was wearing a very tight corset. The Wintersons were Pentecostals and the religion was like a mental corset.

If you like memoir, then you should read this. It’s disturbing, but it’s so amazingly well written and the first part has hilarious moments. Mrs Winterson is crazy, but she really is larger than life. She reminded me of some of Picasso’s paintings of grotesquely deformed women. We read about her with horror, but at the same time we almost wishes we had been there. I even felt compassion, there were small details that could almost make her endearing. At the end of the book, when Jeanette Winterson has found her birth mother and looks back on her childhood, she says she’s glad Mrs Winterson was her mother. Although she was crazy and abusive, she made her who she is, maybe without such an adoptive mother, there wouldn’t be a writer like Jeanette Winterson. I can understand that thinking very well.

47 thoughts on “Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

  1. I read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit a few years ago. I saw the film too–two entirely different experiences. I’ve read a few other Winterson titles but not this one.

    I agree about the title. It says it all, doesn’t it, as regards the speaker. I would imagine that if I’d been in Winterson’s shoes, I would have thought what rotten luck to have these nutjobs come to MY crib. I was going to ask if she found her birth mother, but you answered that for me.

  2. I find this type of book disturbing to get through also. Winterson’s mother sadly sounds like all too many people in this world. I imagine that this must have been difficult to write.

  3. Difficult to write, yes, but also cathartic and cleansing, I would hope.
    I’ve read several reviews of this book but never felt like reading it before reading your review. I think it’s because of what you write about her mother being a zealot and I find ind that really interesting. A real life Carrie – but without her … special abilities …

  4. Beautiful review, Caroline! I haven’t read a Jeannette Winterson book yet, but have read only a few essays by her. This looks like a fascinating book. That description of how Winterson’s mother took away all her books – I don’t know how she survived that. I would have found that impossible. It is interesting that Jeannette Winterson feels that without her crazy, conservative mother she wouldn’t be the person and writer she is. Sometimes a tough childhood does make a person better, though it must have been hard to live through. Thanks for this wonderful review. I will add this book to my wishlist.

    • I forgot to add this. I didn’t know that Jeannette Winterson had a breakdown in 2008. That is quite recent and is very sad. I thought her childhood was far away and she had moved past that now. It is so unpredictable how our childhood can sneak up on us suddenly one day affecting our present life.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      I really wonder if that is not just trying to make sense of something horrible or if really she wouldn’t be a writer now. I don’t know.
      The book episode is harrowing. It’s a t the same time told in a very funny and heartbreaking way. It’s not the first time that I hear of Christina sects forbidding books and going to such lenghts to destroy them. She had a good public library. She goes into that topic as well.
      I hope you’ll like it. I think you will but it’s hard to read.

      • It is sad that sometimes people feel threatened by books so much that they go to any lengths to destroy them. It is unbelievable that it is happening these days (or rather a few decades back when Winterson was growing up). I will look forward to reading this book.

  5. I felt very similarly to you – amazing book, amazing writing and extremely powerful. But what a life to go through to get that memoir. I found her closing statements, about being glad ultimately she’d had Mrs Winterson rather than a decent mother because otherwise she wouldn’t be a writer, very powerful. I marvelled there at how much healing she must have done and how far she must have come to be able to see it that way. And like you, I felt that breakdown would be inevitable. No way of escaping it.

    • Absolutely no way of escaping it, I’d say. She writes amazingly. I felt towards the end that she came to appreciate parts of Mrs W, as horrible as the woman as such was. She must have been suffering as well.
      It needs tons of healing to come to that conclusion.

  6. Great review Caroline! I feel like I have read the whole book. She had such painful childhood…poor girl. It does sound like a great book but I don’t think I will ever pick this book up because I am not into depressing memoir.

    Funny thing is, I have finished writing review of a memoir too, but it’s a fun memoir 😉

  7. Wonderfully written post Caroline–though I’ve not yet read this or Oranges, I get a ver strong sense of what the books (this one particularly) are like. I want to read both (I’ve only read a couple of her novels). I think I will start with Oranges–must get around to it sometime soon–both books sound very good, but deinitely not what I would call easy reading.

    • Tnanks, Danielle. I’m sure you’d find her books very interesting and would like her way with words. She writes some memorable sen tneces but given that she writes about her life, it’s not easy. That mother was something else altogether-

  8. I have this and am looking forward to it. One of the things that surprised me in Oranges is the sympathy, compassion is perhaps a better word, it shows to the mother. The mother there is mad, damaging, all that she is here, but there’s still a sense of love towards her in the text.

    For me that was part of the book’s power. We don’t choose who or how we love, and that’s as true for family as it is for any other kind of love.

    Danielle, I started with Winterson with Oranges and loved it. It’s a very well written novel.

    • I think the fact thta we feel compassion with Mrs W has something to do with the fact Jeannette Winterson fells it herself. She was an awful mother but one who suffered a lot, unfortunately she was trapped in her suffering and too it out on everyone else.
      The religious fanatcism is the worst.
      I hope you will get to it sooner or later, I’d like to see how you think it compares to Oranges.

  9. Hadn’t heard of her, but I’m adding her to my list. Both books sounds wonderful–painful and difficult, but wonderful at the same time. I know that sounds weird. I admire strong people.

    • I just bought Oranges Are Not The Only fruit this afternoon!
      Your description nails it. Painful and wonderful at the same time. She’s an awesome writer and what a life!
      My mother was very similar only we were not poor nor was she a zealot but there was a dark Catholic vibe and many other elements are just the same.

  10. Pingback: Christine Dwyer Hickey: The Lives of Women (2015) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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