17th Jan 2012
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Written in her characteristic caustic style, whose raw emotion punches you in the belly and then storms out of the room without looking back, it follows her quest for identity, for mother and for roots.
Winterson’s first and most famous novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, published in 1985 and winning the Whitbread Prize, is itself largely autobiographical and the first part of Why Be Happy… covers the same time period.
It shows her growing up in Accrington, the adopted daughter of a tyrannical evangelical Christian mother and downtrodden father, and her early intense forbidden love relationships with both women and books. It does provide some historical context as well as filling in some gaps from Oranges… but I didn’t learn much new.
The second part covers her quest for her birth mother precipitated by a descent into madness following the break-up of a relationship. It follows her search for the truth of her adoption and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that she encountered, a search she goes through with the support of her new partner, Susie Orbach.
It is in this more recent story that the reader encounters something entirely new in Winterson’s work. She is uncertain, she loses language. She writes extensively in this work about narrative and how life is ‘part fact part fiction’.
By being the one in charge of writing the story, you get to say what’s true, you get to create your own self. But in the quest for her birth mother she returns to a pre-verbal time and loses control of the story and at times of her self. I found that both refreshing and heart-breaking.
But the real story of Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is not found exclusively in the plots. The book is peppered with philosophical and literary explorations of concepts of time, of home, of liminal space, of love and of roots.
I found myself asking: what is the self that she is constructing here? Oranges… was her way of saying that she existed, her own truth as opposed to her mother’s.
The years between the publication of Oranges… and the start of the journey to find her birth mother are not covered at all. So why tell these stories? It is a quest for identity by exploring three heritages: the family she grew up in; the one who gave her up aged 6 weeks; and the literary canon.
Without the Mrs Winterson and adoption stories, she would not have had the fight that makes her the writer she is, but it was in English literature A-Z that she found roots and foundations that she could rely on.
It is in generating words that she finds a present that she can cope with and a heritage to pass on to others. The explorations of home, of mother, of love, of time are not simply asides to make the book more interesting or to display her knowledge and erudition. They are who she is. It is through those passages that she narrates her self into existence.
Recommended for: If you want a comprehensive biography in linear time, then this is not the book you’re after. But if you want a fast-paced story that will make you laugh, cry and rage along with her and think for ages after, you won’t go wrong with this.
Guest post by Jenny Tipping