Jeanette Winterson is a writer who openly plumbs her own history in her work, famously so in her debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit which chronicles her childhood as an adoptive daughter, living in the house of a woman obsessed with the apocalypse and highly homophobic, which is unfortunate for Winterson who is a lesbian. I haven’t read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, though it is a book which has been sitting on my shelf for some time, and having read Why Be Happy… I think it’s about time I got around to it.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is a memoir, a non-fictionalised account of the same events but also spanning a greater period of Winterson’s life. The memoir focuses on three significant events: her adoptive childhood and her relationship with Mrs Winterson, her emotional breakdown following the death of her mother and the end of a long-term relationship, and the search for her birth mother. Interspersed amongst these events are many fascinating observations about education, about reading, about feminism, about her love of women and women she has loved, about love, sharings of wisdom and history to name but a few. It is a difficult book to explain because of this, so perhaps I can explain by saying that whenever I read a book I mark pages of interest with a little torn strip of paper, so I can return to it and write about it or reflect on it. My copy of Why Be Happy is bursting at the seams with these little strips of paper. There is much wisdom in this book, much honestly and reflection.
Jeanette Winterson is a writer who is honest and open, she writes with passion and risk, she is funny, bright and insightful. It is, whether you know her story or not, an insightful and informative read. And it’s fun to read too. There were many points in the reading that I laughed openly, other times when I felt close to tears. Winterson is a writer who pulls emotion close to the surface, but she’s not sentimental or crass. She writes an incredible amount about love; I have seen this in her fiction, most especially in The Powerbook which is, perhaps, one of the most passionate books I have ever read. It is therefore surprising that Winterson spends much of the book convincing the reader that she doesn’t know how to love, that she learned to do it wrong. As she explains here:
“No. And all my life I have repeated patterns of rejection. My success with books felt like gatecrashing. When critics and the press turned on me, I roared back in rage, and no, I didn’t believe the things they said about me or my work, because my writing has always stayed clear and luminous to me, uncontaminated, but I did know that I wasn’t wanted.
And I have loved most extravagantly where my love could not be returned in any sane and stead way – the triangles of marriages and complex affiliations. I have failed to love well where I might have done, and I have stayed in relationships too long because I did not want to be a quitter who did not know how to love.
But I did not know how to love. If I could have faced that simple fact about myself, and the likelihood that someone with my story (my stories, both real and invented) would have big problems with love, then, then, what?
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.
Listen, we fall. Love is there but we have to learn it – and its shapes and its possibilities. I taught myself to stand on my own two feet, but I could not teach myself how to love.
We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities.
In my work I found a way to talk about love – and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.”
Jeanette Winterson is an intelligent and vibrant woman, she is a fighter and she fights through her fiction, she reaches and explores searching out what she wants and needs to survive, but more than to survive: to live. Coming from a working class background in the North of England (not hugely different to my own, though my mother was mine and more stable) she scrabbled and fought her way out of an appalling family situation into a degree course at Oxford (no mean feat) into a published, award winning novelist by the age of 25. She touches on all of this throughout Why Be Happy, and she does this not by being modest or with hubris but with that luminous clarity she describes about her connection with language. Whilst love may have failed her, language hasn’t and her relationship with reading, how she explored and learned from it, its intrinsic value, is inspiring. Another aspect of the book I particularly loved was the way it dipped and dove around in time. This is a feature of Winterson’s books (it has certainly appeared in all the others I’ve read) and it is one that could be frustrating but which I find very personable. Particularly in the memoir form, you get the sense that you’re following the train of Winterson’s mind where she leads you, that one thought leads to another and then to another. It places Winterson very present in the book, it is like she is talking to you. A conversation I think I would find terrifying and fascinating in equal measure.
I came away from Why Be Happy with a huge respect for Winterson as a writer. It is an honest, heartfelt and intelligent book. There are so many fonts of wisdom it is impossible to write about them all here. I was a fan before, and I’m more of a fan now. She is a writer not afraid of taking a risk, she is herself and unashamed of it. She has suffered, she has lost, she has used her life and her loss and her pain and her endless search for love as a mine for her fiction and it is remarkable for it. This non-fictional account is no different. What a great book, and a great woman.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal receives a respectful 10 out of 10 Biis.