Book Review: “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”

I first heard the title of this book at a talk at a writer’s festival, before the book was written. Jeanette Winterson was – is – one of my favourite writers, and as a speaker she didn’t disappoint either. During the talk – which was articulate, engaging, lyrical, witty: a more down-to-earth form of her writing – Jeanette referred to her mother only as “Mrs Winterson,” telling us that the final thing she said to Jeanette, when she left home as a teenager, happily in love with another girl, was: “Why be happy when you could be normal?”
*Trigger warning for references to physical and mental abuse*
After that, it was no surprise to me that Jeanette only referred to Mrs Winterson by her title – but that was six years ago. In this book, she is often “Mrs Winterson” too, but also “my mother” and, once or twice, even “mum” (her father is always Dad). This book has been billed as an autobiography, and in many ways it is, though incomplete: but it’s also a biography of Mrs Winterson and her relationship with the daughter she believed God had provided but who seemed to her to be full of the Devil.
Until I was two years old, I screamed. This was evidence in plain sight that I had been possessed by the Devil”¦ A screaming baby wasn’t a broken-hearted baby, she was a devil baby”¦ When I was locked in the parlour for three days with the curtains closed and no food or heat for three days I was pretty sure I had no demon. After three days of being prayed over in shifts and not allowed to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, I was beginning to believe I had all Hell in my heart.

Mrs. Winterson appears as a woman of contradictions: she made a bonfire out of her daughter’s books and refused to have any novels in the house, yet she would also send her to the library for pulp detective novels, and read Jane Eyre to the seven-year-old Jeanette, improvising an ending where Jane marries St. John on the fly; obsessed with Jeanette’s sex life, with none of her own; she would never beat Jeanette, leaving that – method precisely delineated – to her husband and an exorcist, but would sometimes hit her in anger and often locked her out of the house all night.

It’s really cold and I’ve got a newspaper under my bum and I’m huddled in my duffel coat.
A woman comes by and I know her. She gives me a bag of chips. She knows what my mother is like.
Inside our house the light is on”¦ when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kid outside all night”¦ and a revolver in the duster drawer.

Close-up of cover image showing Jeanette as a little girl in a swimsuit, on a beach, holding a large multicolour beach ball.The subject matter will be familiar to anyone who has read Winterson’s semi-autobiographical first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, though it’s certainly neither a prerequisite for nor a barrier to this book, which takes the reader from Jeanette’s adoption, through childhood, adolescence, to university, but also hops through her adulthood and back to the lives of all four of her parents. And the subject matter could be easy to label, too: a difficult childhood (adoption; poverty; physical, mental, and verbal abuse; fundamentalist religion; homophobia; mental illness – a childhood, in fact, that is not unlike Jane Eyre’s) and a often-difficult adulthood (because a childhood like that is not easy to grow out of).

Listen, we are human beings. Listen, we are inclined to love. Love is there, but we need to be taught how. We want to stand upright, we want to walk, but someone needs to hold our hand and balance us a bit,and scoop us up when we fall”¦ I taught myself how to stand on my own two feet, but I could not teach myself how to love.

But Winterson’s brilliant writing has always resisted labels, and what comes through most clearly is the writer’s pride in the area where she grew up, her deep belief in social justice,  the power of words, and her love – sometimes flawed, but passionate and unceasing – of life.

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. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

If you’ve read any of her novels, this book has some of her best writing and gives depth to some of her best-loved characters (the Dog Woman was inspired by a version of Mrs Winterson): and if you haven’t, it’s a powerful, heartbreaking but never sentimental introduction to a remarkable writer and her life (so far).

Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.

6 replies on “Book Review: “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?””

I find that I tend to empathize very much with characters in books, or on TV, or in movies. Would you describe this book as one that could be painful to read? It sounds very interesting, and I would like to add it to my [long] list of books to read; I have read sad autobiographies before, though, and been left unable to shake that feeling of depression for a while. It seems, from the quotes, that this book may also be motivating though.

There are moments when it is quite difficult to read, especially when she’s describing her later struggles with mental illness. But I found the style of writing and the not-quite-chronological structure helped to lighten it so it was never unbearable or unrelenting, plus there is a lot of humour and spirit to the writing as well. The sample chapters from Amazon will give you a good idea of how it’s written.

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