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

In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.

This book is that story’s silent twin. It is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is one of those books that I’ve always meant to read but never quite got round to somehow, but I’d heard about its story and also read and enjoyed other novels by Winterson (see my review of The Daylight Gate), so was keen to give this book a try.

Once I started Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, I found there was something addictive, something compulsive about Winterson’s style of prose. Her description is anything but flowery, and yet is so vivid that I felt I could see the Winterson house, feel the cold and grime of the coal cellar, hear the voice of Mrs Winterson as she delivered her apocalyptic pronouncements. This book is completely unsentimental and yet, again, I found myself incredibly moved by the journey it describes, from a state of vulnerability – as a child, there was regular mistreatment that nowadays would be called abuse, physical and, largely, psychological – through a recognition by Jeanette of her ability to act independently of her mother’s wishes, totally rebellion and finally, through searching for her biological mother, some kind of understanding.

WBHWYCBN begins by evoking Mrs Winterson – the real one – in all her truth and grotesqueness:

“When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’
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. 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. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth – matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for ‘best’.”
In isolation, this could be highly comic, reminiscent of Roald Dahl at his most ghastly, but within the context of real life, a woman really allowed to be the main carer for a young girl, mistress of her wellbeing, it is horrifying and tragic. Mrs Winterson’s neuroses, her dashed dreams and her strange preoccupations, wreak havoc on Jeanette’s development in terms of her view of herself and the way in which she relates to others.

I found the honesty of WBHWYCBN quite astonishing. Winterson is quite open about her own behaviour, which at times was strange, unkind and even deliberately damaging, as well as her struggles with her own depression and mental health. She’s also unflinching in her descriptions of her adoptive parents, talking about the bad times but also the moments of light too, presenting us with the strange dichotomy of emotional attachment to, and the damaging actions of, her mother and father.

I don’t want to say too much more as I don’t want to spoil the reading experience. Those who’ve read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit will already have an idea of the content but will hopefully still be amazed (shocked?) by the truth behind the novel. Those who haven’t need to prepare themselves for an extraordinary journey filled with passion – love, laughter, anger, sadness.

To hear more about this incredible book, listen to the Vintage Podcast: 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is out now in paperback from Vintage.


2 thoughts on “Shelf Help Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

  1. Alice says:

    “I found there was something addictive, something compulsive about Winterson’s style of prose.”

    I felt exactly the same way! I picked it up last weekend and thought ‘oh just for an hour’ and almost read it in one sitting.

    I enjoyed how open she is while not revealing much, her emotions are vivid. She even gives an element of humanity to Mrs Winterson, which isn’t granted in Oranges are not the only Fruit – I think this has come with age and the stability of her relationship with Orbach. The scary thing is, is that I can see people I know in elements of Mrs Winterson – especially her depression and religious zeal.

    • Adventures With Words says:

      Considering I rarely read autobiography, I really found it compelling – glad you did too! I know what you mean with regard to Mrs Winterson; I think the reason she was so destructive was that she was the ‘perfect storm’ of all those appalling tendencies wrapped up in one extremely unhappy package. I actually felt very sorry her. – Kate

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