Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson
I’m just going to go right ahead and give this 10/10. I don’t usually use the highlight function on the kindle reader, but every line of Winterson’s beautifully crafted prose is just begging to be mulled over, quoted, and treasured. Her writing is not only poetic and pleasurable, but sharp and insightful. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal explores the themes of love, time, and family, themes that we have seen repeatedly in her novels, but here with an added brutal and beautiful vulnerability, because this is Winterson’s autobiography.
The book focuses on Winterson’s childhood, which echoes many of the situations we read about in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, but this time without the veil of surrealism and semi-fiction that marked Oranges. Later in the novel, Winterson talks about how her childhood, and particularly her relationship with her adopted mother, shaped her adulthood and her approach to love and home. The final narrative thread deals with Winterson’s decision to seek out her birth mother and the results of that search.
Amanda Palmer once wrote on her blog about her theory that the ingredients of any piece of art are the artist and their experiences. And then in the process of creating art, these things go in a blender. On a scale of 1-10 in the blender, she says her own songs are only blended at a 2 or a 3, leaving recognisable chunks of her personal experience, keeping her art personal and close. Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, certainly played with autobiography, and could probably be classed as a 4, whilst her other fiction is more surreal and abstracted, lurking around a 6 or 7. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a raw 1.
Reading this book was a strange experience. I am lucky to have had a very loving and secure childhood, but some of my loved ones have had terrible experiences growing up, and this book made me think of them, and want to call them and give them this book. I generally avoid media that is overtly sad – my usual rule is that if a book is going to make me cry it has to make me laugh first. Sometimes, if I want that catharsis, I watch Grey’s Anatomy (Denny!). Reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal made me weep. It gave me that catharsis, but at the same time the situation felt unique because unlike with a soap opera, this is not manufactured drama. I felt sensitive to the fact that this is Winterson’s real life and respectful of her bravery and vulnerability in choosing to share this part of her life with strangers.
Choice quote: ‘I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.’
I love this quote because 1) this is how I feel about certain books or quotes I have read. 2) In several instances the deep-diving ‘somebody’ for me was Winterson herself. 3) The experience of struggling for words is universal, but has been pushed to the foreground of my life in the last few years as I learned a second language and moved to another country.
To sum up: why aren’t you reading this book already? Go!
Insert apologetic rambling about already having broken my wednesday-friday posting schedule – I was on holiday and then ill.