Published by Grove Press ISBN 9780802120878
Trade paperback, $15, 240 pages
Jeanette Winterson wrote a critically acclaimed novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, loosely based on her life growing up in a Northern England industrial town. Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is the non-fiction version of that story.
The looming figure in both books is Winterson's adopted mother, who is always referred to in the book as Mrs. Winterson. Her parents were Pentecostal and her mother raised Jeanette to become a missionary. Mrs. Winterson was abusive, frequently locking Jeanette out of the house overnight, leaving her to freeze on the porch steps.
During those long nights, it was books that saved young Jeanette. That was where she fell in love with language and books, and where she found truth, beauty and security in her lonely existence. Books saved her sanity and her life.
Mrs. Winterson spent much of her time at church meetings, and was always angry and disappointed in Jeanette. At the age of sixteen, Jeanette told her mother that she was in love with a woman and Mrs. Winterson uttered the phrase that became the book's title, "Why be happy when you can be normal?".
The fact that she was adopted affected her as well. Her mother wanted a boy and she finds some papers in her mother's things that confuse her. As expected, the confrontation with Mrs. Winterson about this does not go well.
Jeanette decided to try and find her birth mother and that journey is interesting. She searches long and hard and eventually finds her mother, although her own reaction to meeting her mother is much more complicated than she imagines.
Winterson's memoir, with its poetic language, gives hope to people who feel that they are different from everyone else around them, that life is too difficult. It can help them to find their own voice as she found hers. One of the passages I marked is this one:
"A tough life needs a tough language- and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers- a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place."Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is a beautiful finding place for those who feel lost too.
rating 4 of 5