Moira Russell's Reviews > Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
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's review
Nov 19, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2011-50-new-books-challenge, daughters-speak-out
Read from November 18 to 19, 2011

This book came in the mail today, I opened the package, opened the book and looked at a few pages randomly, started reading, and about half an hour later turned back to the beginning so I could start reading it properly. That's as good a star ranking as anything, I think.

This book isn't really a memoir, (but then again, if you expect linear storytelling from Jeanette Winterson....): it skips twenty-five years of her life in an "Intermission" and the end is so open-ended a great breeze might come through (there's a lot about doors and thresholds, being locked out and being let in, in this book). What made it amazing for me is the power, the fire, of Winterson's descriptions of reading, her personal, visceral attachment to books. I imagine this is being sold as the dark-side-of-the-moon companion to Oranges, Winterson's first, most realistic and most openly autobiographical novel; indeed, my British edition of the book has a little round orange sticker declaring it to be "BY THE AUTHOR OF ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT". Clever-clever, marketing department.

But this book is the story of what didn't get into the story of Oranges: raggedy, stitched-together, with great gaping absences, spurts of language and then painful silences, aporia, lacunae. Winterson called it the "backstory" of Oranges on her blog, which fits: it's the backstage story, the back of the tapestry, the story of how she got dragged back to what she describes as the central "wound" of her life, being given up for adoption. Oranges was a self-made origin myth; this goes back further, to the origin of that origin myth, and while the tale is still self-made, one of its larger points is how made we are by what happens to us, who brings us up, who nurtures us. Our background -- which she brings to the fore of her story.

This book is much more angry than Oranges (which had a kind of deliberately willed, commanded, courage and optimism which is part of Winterson's own defiant makeup; she charmingly explains the difference between her and her adopted mother in their choice of favourite hymns: hers is "Cheer Up Ye Saints of God," Mrs Winterson's is "God Has Blotted Them Out"). Winterson writes about the blighting of the industrial North of England -- her description of Manchester as the country's "engine" is stunning -- and Thatcherism, the tutor who said to her at Oxford, "You are the working-class experiment" (her best friend got "You are the black experiment"), and there's a striking paragraph-long explosion at cultural critics who called her "arrogant" after her books were published, who didn't understand that for a working-class girl daring to dream of being an author, that wasn't arrogance, it was "politics." Again from her blog:

Shelagh Delaney, writer of A Taste of Honey, was so good, and she didn’t get the support she needed to develop. She was a working class girl, before feminism, living in Salford, and she had incredible talent. She should have been up there in the theatre along with Osborne and Pinter. But although she got her break, she didn’t get the crucial follow-up. She was born in 1939 and wrote A Taste of Honey as her first play when she was about 20. She co-wrote the movie with Tony Richardson and it won everything at Cannes.

Her second play faltered, and she went into film work. There was so much more she could have done and how amazing to see a woman at the centre of the Kitchen Sink Realism as well as all those male heroes…
We have to look after people. Space, time, encouragement, there is no such thing as the lone genius or the lone talent.

At the end of the book, Winterson meets her biological mother and half-brother, and a heap of other relations, and thinks sadly how intelligent they all are, how they're trying to read and study and learn on their own just as she did; and she beautifully describes being nurtured by a number of different women, from the female librarian who gave her a spare room to her present partner, Susie Orbach (warning: that interview will make you want to kick Aida Edemariam in the shins). A refrain in the book is about want -- You were wanted, Jeanette -- how her birth mother wanted but couldn't keep her, and "Mrs Winterson" had her but didn't want her. But, as Julie Myerson said:

Of course, one of the book's queasiest ironies – and one you sense Winterson is fully aware of – is that it was Mrs Winterson who made her into a writer. By attempting to stunt her daughter's emotional and imaginative growth with fear and religion, she succeeded in doing the exact opposite. She created someone who learned to live in her head, and to love, trust and remember words: "Fuck it, I can write my own," was young Jeanette's thought as she watched her beloved books burn.

Excerpt from the book in the Grauniad - this is what made me buy it from because I couldn't wait to read it. I linked it to nearly every one of my friends. Its ending deserves to be quoted in full:

I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts. We had always memorised long chunks of the Bible, and it seems that people in oral traditions have better memories than those who rely on printed text. The rhythm and image of poetry make it easier to recall than prose, easier to chant. But I needed prose too, and so I made my own concise versions of 19th-century novels – going for the talismanic, not worrying much about the plot. I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language.

....The books had gone, but they were objects; what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do. "Fuck it," I thought, "I can write my own."

And she did.

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Jeanette Winterson
“Why is the measure of love loss?”
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Reading Progress

05/31 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Audra (Unabridged Chick) !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Staggeringly, stunning, beautiful review. As usual, lovely and insightful, plus fun, and on-mark and awesome.

Moira Russell Audra (Unabridged Chick) wrote: "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Staggeringly, stunning, beautiful review. As usual, lovely and insightful, plus fun, and on-mark and awesome."

Aww, thank you dear! The book was riveting.

message 3: by Nathalie (new)

Nathalie Lovely review, Moira.

message 4: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo fabulous review, moira. you got to all the fissures i couldn't get to.

message 5: by JSA (new) - added it

JSA Lowe Jesus, Moi. Will you let me take the last 10-15 of these and just start a blog for you already??? MUY FABULOSO.

Paul Bryant great review

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