“Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?” by Jeanette Winterson

Greetings readers. Happy New Year! Welcome to Tales From a Bruce Eye View’s very first post of 2015. I thought I’d begin the year with a book review (obviously), discussing the brilliantly raw and moving book, “Why Be Happy When You Could By Normal” (2012) by one of my favourite writers, Jeanette Winterson.

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In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.

This book is that story’s the silent twinIt is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.

This is a follow up to Winterson’s brilliant semi-autobiographical debut, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”. If you have read and enjoyed Jeanette Winterson before, you will happily find her roaming narrative style again here. She has such an amazing talent for guiding her reader through her complex emotions. Her meandering style leaves little room for chronology, but I like this; it allows the reader to really immerse themselves in the ideas and images that are presented. Winterson explains her writing style in the opening chapter of her autobiography.

“In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? … Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include.”

I appreciated this explanation, as “semi-autobiographical” can be a confusing term. It can leave readers feeling like they need to prize the ‘semi’ from the ‘autobiography’, deciphering what is real and what is not. This shouldn’t really affect us as a reader. It is not our business to dig into another’s truth, but to appreciate the story that is presented. Winterson did not have to explain herself or develop her story further as she has done so painfully well in “Why be happy…” but I’m so very glad she did.

This book is mostly about growing pains, being adopted and finding the truth. It is a whirlpool of fascinating characters all at once dark, menacing and delightful. One of the most domineering characters in “Why be happy when you could be normal?” is The North. I know that Jeanette Winterson has done lots of work on The North, written about it, researched it, explored it, presented a five part series about Manchester on BBC Radio 4 etc. However, in this book, it often feels as though Winterson is whispering loudly to everyone who is not from the North about the North in an almost over-explaining, apologetic way.

“The working-class north of England was a routinely brutal world. Men hit women … women hit men, and if it was in the general morality of ‘I deserved that’ – drunkenness, womanising, gambling the housekeeping money – then the men accepted the thump.” (page 46)

“This is the old Manchester working-class way; you think, you read, you ponder… I feel proud – of them, of me, of our past, our heritage. And I feel very sad. I shouldn’t have been the only one to have been educated.” (page 218)

A lot of this is very much of its time and as I wasn’t around at said time maybe I can’t really comment, but surely these things weren’t just subject to a northern postcode? Surely, these issues were countrywide to some extent? As a northerner myself, I felt a little stung by some of Winterson’s descriptions of The North. A lot of it I can look at affectionately and to some extent relate to, but I’m worried that someone with an already negative view of The North might jump on this and say “see, Jeanette Winterson said that people are uneducated in the north and it must be true because she’s from there and she left”. I understand that Winterson had some terrible experiences in the hills of Accrington and I understand why she left, but I hope that her experiences and some of her descriptions do not dissuade people from the fact that The North is a stunning place with just as many intelligent and well-educated people as anywhere else in the country.

This is a definite must read for well-established Jeanette Winterson fans and new readers alike. She tells her story so vividly that it is sometimes difficult to remember that this is a memoir and not a novel.  There are some references to her previous works but not so many that you feel lost and not so exclusive that you feel locked out.

There is something for everyone in this book particularly if you’re adopted or have adopted; ever lived in or have been to The North and definitely if you’re a human person who was once a younger human person.

Enjoy.

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