Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

(image: goodreads.com)

The dictionary defines ‘truth‘ as several different things, the first of which is ‘quality or state of being true’, which seems logical enough. However, it also defines ‘truth’ as ‘honesty; sincerity; genuineness’. These are the aspects of truth that apply most to what one may call a human truth – the truth of things as one person experienced them. Historical truth and human truth are two very different things – the former being closer to what we may call a fact, the latter being a subjective experience affected by the influences of memory. Facts are distorted in our memories as we surround them with emotional associations and issues – sometimes we do not remember things as they were but rather how we think they were – and so each person will have their own version of events.

Things that happened a long time ago that for one reason or another have great emotional significance to us are most subject to the effects of memory distortion. This does not necessarily mean that our memories change facts or make us remember things inaccurately; rather it means that we remember them subject to our own emotional experience. What we say is true to us because, as the dictionary says, we are being honest, sincere and genuine. It’s just that someone else might remember it differently – perhaps more literally.

As a writer Jeanette Winterson has always liked to play with ideas of truth and reality. Her novel The Passion is a wonderful example of this, as the characters negotiate their way through their lives, telling things only as they remember them. What they say is true but they do not necessarily tell the truth. Truth can also change over time. Our view of past events changes as we grow up and change within in ourselves. This is the case with childhood memories especially. As we get older we see that our parents are only people trying to make the right decisions and make their way through life. They are flawed and vulnerable, just like we are. Time affects memory.

Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was published in 1985 to great acclaim and several awards. Given that the main character is a girl named Jeanette who discovers she is a lesbian growing up in a small town in the north of England with a fiercely religious mother, people assumed the text was largely autobiographical. Winterson disputed this to no avail and it is now an accepted fact that the novel is ‘semi-autobiographical’. The truth, but not the whole truth. In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Winterson states that one of the reasons she wrote the story of her childhood (or, at least, some of it) as a novel was because she was sick of the assumption that female writers only wrote about love stories and ‘what they knew’. Winterson wrote about what she knew but she elaborated upon it and made it her own version – she did not simply tell the story of what happened to her when she was a child. Instead she made her own life into an amazing novel full of fantasy and strangeness that was not just a simple story. As her career progressed and more books were published, it became clear to the reading public that nothing is just a simple story with Winterson. Everything has layers of truth and perception that are specific to each character and each reader, everything can be interpreted in more than one way.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the story of what really happened; well, as much as Winterson will allow. There is certainly more detail and she is more frank about the reality of life with her parents in Accrington in the 1970s and 80s. We hear the full story of her mother’s reaction to her homosexuality and indeed her own exploration of it. This is not simply, however, a book about her childhood. It was not written simply to define the fact from the fiction in Oranges. It is greater than that. The blurb states that it is about a ‘tough-minded search for belonging, for love, an identity, a home, and a mother.’ This is the great search of Winterson’s life, and I suspect of many others’. These things she is/was searching for are the things that we all take for granted, that we all assume everyone has by default, but that a shocking number of people do not have. Winterson does not ask for sympathy or pity, and she does not wallow in the tragic drama of life with her adoptive mother. In this sense she is a writer of truth. She is honest and sincere. She refers to her mother as ‘Mrs Winterson’, displaying the distance felt and the lack of familiarity with the woman who raised her. Calling her mother Mrs Winterson also places the name ‘Winterson’ outside of herself – though it is her name it does not belong to her and she does not belong to it. She is a Winterson and yet she is not. Popping up throughout the text, references to ‘Mrs Winterson’ are barefaced reminders of our author’s lack of self-definition and her acute awareness that she did not belong to the Wintersons – and yet they were all she had.

In her search for the most vital aspects of life, she discovers literature at her local library. The story of her relationship with books and reading is genuinely lovely and moving, as she hides them under her mattress until her bed is suspiciously high, and Mrs Winterson finds them and burns them in the garden. This does not deter the young Jeanette however, as she determines that she can write her own stories. And so it began. She talks in great detail about how she relates to the acts of reading and writing and the power they have. She compares opening a book to opening a door to another place into which one can step and escape from the outside world; writing is a more intense version of this, creating the other world oneself, creating one’s own escape. She did this through writing and she did this through telling her mother that she was gay and leaving home when she was sixteen. Her mother asked her to leave, but she did not resist – she knew she had to go if she was to become herself in her true form.

Thus this is a book about all the things in life that help to us to find our identity and the place where we belong; and literature is incredibly vital in this process. Anyone who knows and loves Winterson’s work will understand how transporting her writing can be and the significance this has not only to the reader but to the author as well. Happiness is a transitory thing, but our love of books may be one of the most important factors in our search. Winterson understands this fact, and tries to convey it to her readers through her own tragic, dramatic, exciting and moving story. Everything she says is true.

Published in the UK in 2011 by Jonathan Cape.


3 thoughts on “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson”

  1. I went to see her speak at the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Oranges, and she told the story of her mother burning the books, describing first how she had stacked them, layer by layer under her mattress, all the time calling her mother “Mrs Winterson”. Very poignant.


What Do You Think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.