Book Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
I first read Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a teenager; that period characterised by a maelstrom of hormones and confusion; when you’re trying to sort out in your mind who you are from who you’ve always been brought up to be.
It was the ideal time for me to read it ― for two reasons.
Firstly, the main story perfectly exemplifies teenage turmoil and its associated striving for independence. Written with Northern grit and humour, a sense of the absurd woven in amongst tragedy and the mundane, and a smattering of religious melodrama, it is a semi-autobiographical account of an adopted child named Jeanette growing up in a fanatically Pentecostal home in a Lancashire mill town in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This childhood is dominated by a strong-willed, neurotic, and dogmatic mother; a mother who simply cannot cope with the fact that her daughter, destined from her ‘adoptive birth’ to be a missionary, instead discovers ‘forbidden’ love with another girl.
Secondly, the book’s form ― a cyclical, discontinuous narrative that incorporates allegorical fairytales and philosophical discourses alongside the main story ― opened new doors in my mind about the possibilities of storytelling that runs counter to a neat beginning, middle and end, which raises as many questions as it answers, and which somehow drives the point home that every story ever told is but a specific representation of universal themes and truths.
Since Oranges was first published 27 years ago, the exact definition of its ‘semi-autobiographical’ nature has often been speculated over by Winterson’s many nosey readers (myself included) and critics. Now, Jeanette reveals the truth about her childhood, explaining what did happen and what she left out of the novel, in Why Be Happy?, her first book’s “silent twin”.
Or does it?
Yes, her memoir confirms that the ‘real’ Jeanette was adopted; that her mother was indeed domineering and a religious obsessive; that as a child she was an outsider amongst her peers; that she fell in love ― and in bed ― with another girl, was discovered by her disapproving mother and was subsequently denounced and subject to an ‘exorcism’ by the church to which she belonged. It also reveals that there was no such person as “testifying Elsie”, the sympathetic character in Oranges who provides the young Jeanette with friendship and comfort; the reality, it seems, was “much lonelier than that”. It mentions the beatings; being locked out of the house or in the coal cellar overnight; the young Jeanette’s own violent, self-destructive nature that made her lash out at school and deliberately turn friends against her.
And yet, the author won’t allow us to blindly accept that the inclusion of more historical facts in Why Be Happy? means this book is ‘truer’ than Oranges. “Part fiction part fact is what life is,” Jeanette says. “And it is always a cover story… When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one.”
Why Be Happy? is, then, another version of Winterson’s story, written for another reason. Looking back at herself aged 25, when she wrote Oranges, Jeanette reveals, “I wrote my way out.” At that time, she needed to put her life into fiction to take control over it, wresting power away from her domineering mother. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers,” she reflects. Why Be Happy? is written in response to another mother-tumult, which is explored in the second half of the book: the adult Jeanette’s recent search for and discovery of her birth mother.
For me, this book represents coping, on many levels.
Thematically, it reveals how language and literature always helped Jeanette to cope over the years. As a teenager, she read voraciously: “The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated.” In later life, when she experiences a nervous breakdown and unsuccessfully attempts suicide, it is writing a children’s book for the “lost child” inside of her that brings her back from the brink. “Creativity is on the side of health,” she decides, “it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.”
This book, therefore, is not merely about coping; it is in itself an act of coping. It is not the book that Oranges was: a balanced work of art, an act of control over the author’s story and life. Although more mature, it also feels rougher, more confused, disjointed ― and understandably so. For this book is part of Jeanette’s self-prescribed therapy for her self-confessed period of “madness” that heralded her nervous breakdown; it is part of her journey towards control. “When I began this book I had no idea how it would turn out,” she confesses. “I was writing in real time. I was writing the past and discovering the future.” And, most importantly, she admits: “I have no idea what happens next.”
Why Be Happy? is not about resolution ― the author does not seem to have reached that point yet. When she speaks about her depressive, adoptive mother, referred to distantly as “Mrs Winterson”, her words are definite, dramatic and full of decision: “She was her own black hole that pulled in all the light.” Conversely, when speaking of her newly discovered birth mother, her words are light, tentative, lacking judgement; she cannot commit to the same depth or certainty of feeling. “All I can say,” she reveals, “is that I am pleased ― that is the right word ― that my mother is safe.” The conflict of being reunited with someone who is at once her mother and a stranger, who both gave her life and denied her a life, is raw and clear. “I don’t blame her and I am glad she made the choice she made. Clearly I am furious about it too. I have to hold these things together and feel them both/all.”
No, this book is not about resolution, not yet. Instead, it is about evolution. Once more, Jeanette is revisiting her past in order to deal with her present and give meaning to her future ― because, as she puts it, “events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally”. We are all, as Jeanette says, “meaning-seeking creatures”, using language and stories to take events out of linear time and place them within an emotional and psychological context that helps us to comprehend them.
After all, isn’t every story ever told but a specific representation of universal themes and truths? A version, but never the final one? Or is that simply the central ‘truth’ that I have chosen to assign to this book?
Read it for yourself. Perhaps you’ll find a different truth.