Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson | Book review
A new memoir reveals what was hidden in her fiction.
Jeanette Winterson begins her memoir on fire, and never stops fanning the flames. Noting that her Pentecostal, adoptive mother was fond of saying, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib,” Winterson retorts: “The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960—purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs. Winterson—has a flamboyant theatricality to it.” That theatricality, however, had a darker side, as Winterson was beaten and bullied in her own home.
Winterson, of course, has gone on to be one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary novelists, a warm-hearted and ambitious fiction writer who has written eloquently about homosexuality and, in her last novel, an alien planet. As a child, Winterson grew up in a household ruled by fear and resentment: Her parents never slept in the same bed, her mother would lock her outside for the night, and her father would bring her in upon returning home, no one speaking of it. Though Winterson has a literary flair for titles—e.g., Sexing the Cherry—her memoir actually draws its own from her mother’s mouth, uttered in response to Winterson’s homosexuality. While her mother was fueled by a destructive and pernicious self-hatred, it turned her daughter into a fighter: “If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.”
All of the writing in Why Be Happy is like this: terse and direct images that portray a young life lived at the edge of desperation. The memoir echoes the events in her semi-autobiographical first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was published in 1985 and provoked her mother to confess it was the first time she’d had to order a book under a false name. In Why Be Happy, Winterson talks to the first book, but the memoir doesn’t feel like a corrective to its younger, fictional counterpart: more a reconciliation with the elusive truth of autobiographical fiction.
“I told myself as hero like any shipwreck story.… And I suppose the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”
It would be ludicrous to see Why Be Happy as a book of forgiveness, the gauzy memoir that allows the author to take the noble high road and let the villains in her life off the hook. But it’s certainly one of understanding, providing at the very least a more complicated and complete view of her mother and childhood, of what animates such devastating animosity. Winterson is no less relentless when it comes to her past selves, writing about her depression and attempted suicide: “I was thinking about suicide because it had to be an option. I had to be able to think about it on good days. I did so because it gave me back a sense of control.”
One gets the feeling Winterson is uncomfortable writing memoir: The prose has a rushed beauty, an unadulterated outpouring as though it had to hit the page before she took it back or reconfigured it into fiction. The type on the paper is like flint to steel.
Winterson reads from Why Be Happy at the Swedish American Museum on Tuesday 13.