By Tiffany Frye
British writer and lesbian Jeanette Winterson is best known for her semi-autobiographical novel “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.” Her new memoir “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?” fills in the silent story lurking between the lines of “Oranges.”
“Why Be Happy” chronicles Winterson’s strained childhood growing up as a bibliophile and lesbian in an evangelical Protestant household that barred any book that wasn’t a Christian text and all manner and means of sexual and self-expression.
The memoir proceeds in usual Winterson fashion, not in a wholly chronological order, but jumping from here to there, building up parallels between events that took place in the past and those in the present. Winterson has said there are some events that occupy similar spaces in your heart and mind even though they may be years apart. Her book conveys this other type of order. It is an ambiguous order that develops slowly and is true to what Winterson calls “real-time,” not “clock-time.”
The most powerful idea in “Why Be Happy” is the idea that books and poetry are absolutely indispensable. At home, little Jeanette is surrounded by her adoptive mother’s notions of “normalcy,” defined by the imminence of the Apocalypse and admonishments such as “the Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
She finds refuge in books and realizes that she must tell her own story in order to survive all of the other stories that are forced upon her. She runs to the library every day to lose and then find herself again in the shelves of “English Literature A-Z,” steadily working her way through the alphabet – “Thank God her name was Austen,” she says with relief as she looks back on her adventures in bookland.
When I went to her reading, Winterson looked and sounded just as fierce as I imagined her 16-year old self to be. She energetically decried the idea that poetry isn’t for the public and that literature is merely a leisure activity for the upper classes.
Winterson grew up in a working-class household in a working-class town. She says that words were always in the air, that Shakespeare and the Bible were quoted equally and that the storytelling culture formed the bedrock of social interaction. Without books, there would have been no history or culture to build on.
The second part of the memoir shows a Jeanette just as powerful, but not quite as fierce. Much of it was being written as the events themselves unfolded, giving it a rather raw feeling. We see her battling a mental breakdown and working her way through a series of failed relationships, always coming up against the same predicament – an inability to let herself be loved. The emotions are laid bare, and the effect of her impossible upbringing is evident. All the same, she continues to turn to words, quoting poetry in her darkest moments.
The memoir covers large swaths of time, dipping into each of Winterson’s previous publications and building a nearly complete picture of her development into the writer and person she is now. In the end, Winterson reminds us that there are always questions that will never be answered and always openings that will never be closed. She ends with this: “I do not know what happens next.”
To find out more about Jeannete Winterson and for a link to purchase her books, visit her website here: www.distantcloud.co.uk