Monday, 27 August 2012

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

I would guess I am quite rare in approaching Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? without having read Jeanette Winterson's first and most famous novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, to which this new memoir is (the blurb tells us) a 'silent twin'.

Clearly, and justifiably, Winterson assumes some knowledge with that earlier novel, which narrates the childhood of an adopted girl named Jeanette, growing up as a lesbian in a strictly Christian household in northern England.  That this memoir could be summarised in precisely the same words indicates how autobiographical that novel was, although as Winterson addresses in the first chapter of Happy, that Oranges contained such details does not mean it was not fictional. Now, 25 years later, Winterson revisits the same story, this time in the guise of a memoir which admits 'Part fact part fiction is what life is'.

It is frequently clear from the very beginning that this is a memoir written by a very skillful novelist.  It is a challenge to pick out the thread of the narrative of Winterson's life through the fragmented chapters, which are at once semi-chronological and semi-thematic - 'At Home', 'Church' and 'Accrington' being three of the more straightforward.

As such, it is tough to know how to review the book - should I comment on the traumatic content, or on the clearly expert style?  I sense this doubt is what Winterson was aiming for - the reader's struggles to piece together the book mirror her struggles of self-creation as an adopted and seemingly unloved child: 'adoption drops you into the story after it has started.  It's like reading a book with the first few pages missing'.

It is a testament to Winterson's writing style (and to her personality, at the very least on the page) that such a difficult book about horrible events is at once funny, painful and wonderfully readable.  The narrative tone is impossible to pin down, remaining inscrutable at even the darkest moments: when as a teenager she is told her sexuality is the result of a demon, all we read is 'I said there was no demon.  I said I loved Helen'.

Appropriately for such a fragmented work, the emotional turbulence comes later, in the closing chapters which deal with more recent struggles with mental illness.  It's immensely patronising to describe these chapters as "valuable", because they are so much more than that, but it is remarkable how articulately Winterson conveys her darkest days.

Yet another highlight, possibly only for the literature student, is the passion for literature which runs through the book, right from that opening allusion to adoption being like missing the opening pages of your life. Winterson's redemption, she clearly feels, was through reading and ultimately writing: 'I believe in fiction, and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues... All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech... We get our language back through the language of others.  We can turn to the poem.  We can open the book.'

In summary, then, this is a really wonderful book.  It manages to narrate unspeakable events with poise and composure (as a Christian reader, I was humbled by the nuanced treatment Winterson gives to the church which so mistreated her), and self-consciously strives for words that might be as valuable to readers as English literature was to Winterson herself.  A genuine shed-a-tear-in-public memoir, which (at the risk of being cliched) could be read in a day but be remembered for a lifetime.

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