Jeanette Winterson's memoir "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" recounts her surmounting of a childhood with a cruelly disturbed mother through the redemptive power of books. Winterson will discuss her book Wednesday at the Seattle Public Library.
‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’
by Jeanette Winterson
Grove Press, 230 pp., $25
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is British writer Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about her rough childhood and her effort to make peace with it. Her often cruel and clearly disturbed adoptive mother looms with ghoulish force over the story, and the fact that as a teenager Winterson came out as a lesbian in her Pentecostal community fans the flames of her persecution.
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But that’s just half the tale. The other half, the most important part, is about a woman who was saved by books.
“Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,” she writes. “What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”
If you buy this line of reasoning — and I certainly do — then it’s worth considering whether Winterson would be the celebrated writer she is without the suffering she endured. I bet yes.
You can be a passionate reader without ever becoming a writer. And even though her bizarre mother was central to her first book — what she calls the “semi-autobiographical” novel “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” in which the main character just happens to be named Jeanette — it takes more than riveting material to match Winterson’s skills.
She is piercingly honest, deeply creative and stubbornly self-confident. You see the same recalcitrance in the child whose mother locked her outside in the Manchester cold or down in the “coal-hole” (Britishisms abound in this book). She weathers such treatment with the staunch belief that “being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.”
With her hellfire-and-damnation theology, “Mrs. Winterson,” as she is called, didn’t care for heterosexual unions, much less the other kind. So Mr. Winterson remains in the shadows through the mother-daughter battles royal, which halt — temporarily — when Winterson walks out into the night and doesn’t come back.
The working-class girl batters her way into Oxford University, feeling like the ill-fated Jude the Obscure in Thomas Hardy’s novel, except “I was determined not to hang myself.”
In spite or because of her uncompromising ways, Winterson’s successes accrue rapidly — literary prizes, adaptation of her first novel for TV, friendships with other noted writers. But such things are noted in passing, secondary to the life of the mind and the demons of the past, which eventually collide.
“I did not know how to love,” Winterson writes, an unsentimental appraisal of her frozen self.
“Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work very hard at feeling too little.
“Feeling is frightening.
“Well, I find it so.”
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” — the title taken from a question the depressive Mrs. Winterson once posed — is a testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted. But, more than that, it’s a testimony to the words that name the emotions that go with these impulses. This ability is what pulls Winterson out of her “coal-hole” toward a better life.
Not surprisingly for someone who found salvation in literature (but, notably, without denying God), she quotes Coleridge: “What I had, most of all, was the language that books allowed. A way to talk about complexity. A way to ‘keep the heart awake to love and beauty.’ “
Ellen Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of “Between the Covers: The Book Babes’ Guide to a Woman’s Reading Pleasures.”