Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Reviewed by Peter Bore
(Reviewed May 2012)
In the first chapter of this book Jeanette Winterson says, “Truth is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as the things you include….. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable and out of control. 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.”
Perhaps you have read Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical story ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.’ The words above emphasise that ‘Oranges’ was a story, not a literal autobiography. It was provisional and contained as much of the truth as she could bear to tell at 25, the age she was when it was written. Now, at 50, she re-tells and reflects on the story and adds something of the next 25 years.
Jeanette was an adopted child. Her adoptive father, almost illiterate, was sent into battle on D-day with no bullets for his rifle. He killed six German soldiers with his bayonet and returned home to become a labourer. Her adoptive mother, Constance Winterton, was a woman who always felt she had married beneath her, who never slept with her husband, wore a heated corset, kept a revolver in the kitchen and from time to time just disappeared for 24 hours. Both were staunch members of the Pentecostal Church which expected them to attend 7 days a week.
Constance did not treat Jeanette well. She showed emotional warmth to no one (unless perhaps it was to someone she met during her disappearances). She made Jeanette feel unwanted often locking her out of the house all night and used the church to ‘exorcise’ Jeanette’s lesbian orientation, eventually consigning her to an encounter with a church elder who at the very least molested her (perhaps more, but that may still be too painful to tell) thinking that sex with a man would “cure” her. The title of this book is the words of Mrs Winterton when Jeanette left home at 16.
Jeanette’s salvation was not the religion of the Pentecostal Church but the religion which she absorbed from the books she read - taking care to keep them hidden from Mrs Winterton who thought that most books, other than the bible, and especially novels, were the work of the devil. When she did discover Jeanette’s books Mrs Winterson burnt them. Jeanette recounts that the following day as she surveyed the smouldering pile of ash she thought, “Fuck it. I can write my own.” She continued to read avidly going to the Accrington Public Library and starting with the letter A in “English Prose A – Z.” Ultimately books gave her not only a new perspective on the world but also the ambition to be a writer and the motivation to go to university to achieve that ambition.
After the deaths of both of her adoptive parents Jeanette discovered papers which enabled her to trace and contact her birth mother and, remarkably, she can write with some warmth about both of her mothers.
Now after becoming a successful author and after having had some of her psychological turmoil alleviated by reading Neville Symington she is able to reflect on her life’s traumas and reach conclusions which help her, and perhaps many of her readers, to make sense of the world they find themselves in. Often these reflections are expressed using quotations from others. The local librarian tells her “When you are young and you read something you dislike, put it aside and read it again three years later. And if you still dislike it, read it again in a further three years. And when you are no longer young, read all the things you disliked most of all.”
In Gertrude Stein’s “Autobiography of Alice B Toklas” Gertrude and Alice are driving through Paris during the war. Alice is reading the map, Gertrude only sometimes pays attention to her. Eventually Alice loses patience, throws down the map and declares, “This is the wrong road.” Gertrude drives on. She says, “Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.” It is mostly for these features that I commend this book to you. If you think that religion is about life, about how to live life and how to make the best of the life that you have then “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is as good, if not better, than any of the four gospels.
The writing is a bit uneven at times and occasionally staccato or even quirky. However it seems to work well in these circumstances. For a book whose subject matter is essentially fairly grim it is nonetheless liberally sprinkled with episodes and observations told with a gentle, wry and subtle humour. Two examples. There is a debate in the church as to the necessity of being buried with your false teeth. Will we be resurrected with our original teeth; if not will we be toothless in heaven? Will we need teeth in heaven; perhaps there is no eating there? “But,” interjects another, “we must look our best for Jesus.”
And then there is the story of Mrs Winterton, who never welcomed a knock at the door unless she knew that it was the Mormons. “Then she waited in the lobby and before they had dropped the knocker she had flung open the door, waving her bible and warning them of eternal damnation. This was confusing for the Mormons because they thought they were in charge of eternal damnation.”
Read it – whether you are happy or normal.