Published in 2011, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is the memoir of the authors life. You will recognise its fictional counterpart, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit published in 1988.
‘Mrs. Winterson, a thwarted giantess, loomed over the novel and the author’s life: when Jeanette left home at sixteen because she was in love with a woman, Mrs. Winterson asked her: Why be happy when you could be normal? This is Jeanette’s story–acute, fierce, celebratory – of a life’s work to find happiness: a search for belonging, love, identity, a home.
About a young girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night, and a mother waiting for Armageddon with two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer; about growing up in a northern industrial town; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. She thought she had written over the painful past until it returned to haunt her and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also about other people’s stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.’ Synopsis from GoodReads.
‘When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”‘
Mrs Winterson is a larger than life, so entrenched in her own hypocrisy she cannot comprehend the consequences of her actions. She terrorises her daughter, when all Jeanette did was be herself. Nothing conformed to how Mrs Winterson wanted it, which was a constant let down. She was a fierce Christian, but flouted several of the rules. She banned her daughter from reading citing fiction as the devil’s work, but consumed a vast amount of pulp fiction. She also married below her, which gave her an air of superiority, but with as little money as the rest of the community. She was waiting for death, hating life.
Yet, unlike in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – when the pain from her childhood was still raw – Jeanette gives a slither of humanity to Mrs Winterson. She is understanding of her depression, and there is a distinct feeling that Jeanette is coming to terms with the abuse she suffered. Mrs Winterson wanted a best friend, a soul to be moulded. She didn’t get what she wanted – as humans are not so malleable – and she was resentful for the remainder of her life.
Life wasn’t entirely bad, there are moments of happiness that shine through the memoir. The sense of community; her first supportive girlfriend; the teacher that takes her in when Mrs Winterson evicts her; her acceptance to Oxford; the love and support she and Susie Orbach, her partner, have for each other. Winterson makes for a rich description of her life without revealing any more detail that she is comfortable with. We don’t find out an amazing amount about her and I felt respectful of this privacy.
Reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I recognised her community in my own childhood, when Greengrocers and Butchers were a normality. Jeanette comments that she hates going to supermarkets, which lack the sense of community the market of her youth had. You bartered and chatted to your friends – it was a social activity. It is a community culture that my parents mourn and I recognise only from my first thirteen years of life.
“The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need. Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture – exploit the new thing then move on. There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are.“
Jeanette took refuge in her local Library, with a plan to read all fiction A-Z. It made me desperate to go back in time and tell young Alice how important it is to read. I often wonder how much further ahead I would be in life if I had just wanted to read as a child – not read to. Perhaps no where different to now, I’ll never know. Her description of literature is possible on of the best descriptions of how Literature feels for me and why I find it an important influence in my life.
If pushed, I’d suggest you read this after Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, if only to get an idea of Mrs Winterson from a fictional/semi-autobiographical sense, but it’s not necessary. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a book for anything who feels sidelined but conformity. Hell, even if you don’t give it a go.