Book Review: “Why be Happy When You Could be Normal” by Jeanette Winterson

Books are essential for author, Jeanette Winterson. As a child she relied on them for comfort and solace, and in adulthood, writing is her purpose. She was first published in 1985 at the age of twenty-five and won several awards for her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For the last thirty-five years Winterson has continued to write stories and publish a swathe of books. Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, published in 2012, tells the story of being raised by her Pentecostal adoptive parents and, later, her reunification with her birth mother.

Winterson’s sentences are bold and straightforward, witty and poetic. She cleverly uses her inborn English humour to buffer the jarring recount of her memories. It is beautifully written with a kind of lightness, and the reader feels they are in safe hands. Winterson has an interest in the human psyche, and her memoir draws on childhood attachment ideas such as abandonment and trauma. She shows us how early wounds can resurface, without warning, years later, when intimate love is lost, again. In sharing her experiences with us, Winterson helps the reader recognise the ways in which our emotional past is connected to our present.

While living with her adoptive parents, there is a lot for Winterson to endure, and reading English literature saves her. She writes, “Books, for me, are home … in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space”. A harsh home demands some kind of relief, which Winterson finds through entering the warmth of the literary world. The public library, with its order and quietness, becomes her safe place.

As a young person, Winterson is clear about her sexual desires but is subjected to punishment and cruelty within her tight-knit community. When she talks to her mother about her sexual self and discloses her happiness, her mother asks, “Why be happy when you could be normal.” Winterson’s mother encourages her to do as she had done and forgo happiness for acceptance. Soon it becomes clear to Winterson she must find her own way and decides to start her next chapter, leaving home at sixteen.

Winterson begins to mend in adulthood and comes to know the intricacies of her inner world. She understands that “It takes courage to feel the feeling – and not trade it in on the feelings-exchange, or even transfer it to another person.” Here she is referring to the human tendencies of avoidance and projection. She sees in herself the universal impulse to avoid feelings of hurt, often swapping them for anger, or saturating others with our disowned sadness and rage.

Most compelling is the book’s openness, through which Winterson’s story elicits compassion from the reader. Challenges in adult love relationships run parallel to Winterson’s childhood trauma, and her body remembers. Her willingness to be vulnerable means we cannot help but feel admiration and care for Winterson. Her truthfulness allows the lens of our perception to be altered and made more accurate – kinder and less judgemental.

Why be Happy When You Could be Normal (2012) was published by Penguin. The Richmond Tweed Regional Library holds several copies.