The first thing that grabbed me in Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? was the part of her story devoted to books and reading. I’m always interested in hearing authors talk about their reading and writing habits. And before I knew, I was completely swept up in her search for her biological mother and a ‘home’.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? was a book group choice – had I not been under pressure to read it for book group, I probably would have started with Winterson’s first memoir, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which focuses predominantly on Winterson’s childhood. As it turned out, it didn’t matter as the book stands alone and is an enthralling story in itself.
To begin, you meet Winterson’s adopted mother, best described by Winterson herself –
“She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father.”
“Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up.”
The book touches on Winterson’s childhood and describes the solace she found in books. She notes that there were only six books allowed in the house (the Bible and biblical texts) –
“I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books and she said, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.’ I thought to myself, ‘Too late for what?'”
However Winterson discovers the library and so begins her ‘secret reading’ –
“I began to read books in secret – there was no other way – and every time I opened the pages, I wondered if this time it would be too late; a final draught (draft) that would change me forever.”
“…my mother didn’t want books falling into my hands. It never occurred to her that I fell into the books – that I put myself inside them for safe keeping.”
I can’t imagine life without books and reading. I can’t even begin to imagine what would have become of Winterson without books as her comfort.
The second half of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? focuses on Winterson’s search for her biological mother. The search is really just a concrete end point to Winterson’s journey – what she really seeks is the meaning of being loved, the feeling of being ‘at home’ and acceptance of being a lesbian (which ultimately was the reason why she left her childhood home).
“Leaving home can only happen because there is a home to leave.”
The theme of books, storytelling and reading is carried through to the end of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Describing the importance of local culture and storytelling in the north of England where Winterson grew up, she says –
“For the people I knew, books were few and stories were everywhere, and how you tell ’em was everything. Even an exchange on a bus had to have a narrative.”
“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive himself or herself.”
Reading this book as a mother adds another layer – Winterson’s stoic approach almost makes you sympathetic toward her adopted mother. But you swing back to grieving for a little girl’s lost childhood.
“Children do not find fault with their parents love until later. In the beginning the love you get is the love that sets.”
Her sharp and dead-accurate observations about love, especially between a parent and child made me pause and really think –
“I needed lessons in love. I still do because nothing could be simpler, nothing could be harder, than love. Unconditional love is what a child should expect from a parent even though it rarely works out that way.”
The book is peppered with Winterson’s laconic sense of humour. For example, “The library held all the Eng lit classics… I had no idea of what to read or in what order, so I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen…” The result is that you don’t really feel sad for Winterson but rather happy that she at peace with her lot in life.
There are so many interesting themes in this book and I haven’t even touched on the one of adoption. At the beginning, it seems a little disjointed but Winterson cleverly combines her account of her home life, her adopted parents, her early relationships, reading, education and adoption into one coherent and gripping story. Without giving away the ending, I think I can safely say that there’s one more memoir in Winterson!
There’s a few references to tinned peas in this book. I can’t quite bring myself to put tinned (or mushy) peas on the menu but fresh peas are another story. Try this simple recipe for pasta with creamy bacon and pea sauce from the ever-reliable Jamie Oliver – no doubt too fancy for Mrs Winterson but delicious nonetheless.
4/5 It’s real, it’s gripping, you’ll quite possible read it in one sitting.