Monday, 2 January 2012

Book Review - 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' by Jeanette Winterson

I've been a fan of Jeanette Winterson's books for many years, starting with the wonderful Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), a novel based on Winterson's own childhood in 1960s Lancashire. Actually, my introduction to Oranges came through the BBC adaptation in 1990, which I watched with surprise and delight. Since then I have particularly enjoyed Sexing the Cherry (2009) and Lighthousekeeping (2005). One of the things I love about Winterson's work is that every one of her novels is completely different from the rest. You never quite know what you're in for, and that's part of the power and charm.

In spite of my admiration for this writer, I was not prepared for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, which is actually a memoir of Winterson's early years, followed by a break, followed by the resumption of the story over 20 years later when she decides to try to trace her birth mother. I'd heard snatches on Radio 4 and enjoyed what I heard, but I'm never at my most attentive when clearing up the breakfast dishes or washing the floor, and reading the book hit me hard.

Why Be Happy? is the kind of book that makes you rethink your life. It reminded me why I write and why I read. Winterson describes how her love of poetry rescued her from a childhood that was impossible in so many ways. Poetry and fiction are not an option for the educated middle classes - they are, or can be, ways of surviving life. I paraphrase, but that, for me, was the gist. And it's so true. And it's such a good reminder of why children (and adults, but especially children) NEED LIBRARIES. Yes, I'm shouting. Forgive me, but I am, and I trust Ms Winterson approves.

I don't want to give away too much, but Jeanette was adopted at a very young age and became the daughter of Mr and Mrs Winterson of Accrington. Her childhood was in some ways similar to my own - northern, 1960s, lacking in many material comforts and so on. But hers was unusual in that the Wintersons - especially Jeanette's adoptive mother - were a very religious family, belonging to an extreme evangelical Christian church. This meant that many ordinary pleasures were denied to the young Jeanette. It also meant that when she fell in love with a girl, sparks flew and she had to leave home.

One of the things that impressed me was the trouble Winterson takes to be fair to the long-dead Mrs Winterson, to try to understand her and account for her odd and often cruel behaviour. This is not a bitter book. It is, however, an honest one.

Jeanette's attempts to find her birth mother are unlike any other superficially similar story I've read. There is not a trace of sentiment. She is searingly candid about her feelings, including the period of depression that preceded her search. We are left with many questions at the end, as Jeanette herself is left with them.

I finished this memoir wanting to say thank you to the author. As I said above, she reminded me why I love books, both reading and writing them. It's a great way to start the New Year.

I hope you'll read it and enjoy it too.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
by Jeanette Winterson
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (27 Oct 2011)
ISBN-10: 0224093452
ISBN-13: 978-0224093453
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Luisa Plaja said...

This sounds fascinating and I'm adding it to my audiobook wishlist right now. Thank you for the thought-provoking review. I completely agree with you about libraries.

Rosalie Warren said...

Thanks, Luisa. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And yes, libraries... If I'd had any doubts about their necessity (which I didn't), they'd have been dispelled by Winterson's book.