Jeanette Winterson is one of those prolific authors, like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, who I can always rely on when walking into a used bookstore. Often I will just buy a different edition of one of their books that I already love, but if I want something new to read but am not in the mood for taking a risk there is a long list of titles I can choose from those old faithfuls. Jeanette Winterson is probably the most quotable author I have ever read, especially for those of us who live passionately, love obsessively, and believe that art can (and will) change the world. If you ever want a cool literary tattoo just read one of her books—you are sure to find some kind of quote that resonates.
Winterson, who was born in Manchester, England has written 10 novels, a comic book, a book of short stories, a collection of essays, children’s books, her fiction and poetry is featured in many journals and anthologies, and she has worked as a journalist; her writing is, thankfully, everywhere. Her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) written when she was only twenty-three, is perhaps her most well-known, winning the Whitbread Award for first novel and having been adapted into an award-winning BBC drama. Semi-autobiographical, Oranges is the story of a young woman, named Jeanette, who was adopted by a fanatically evangelical couple, and leaves home at 16 to be with another woman after her parents’ church failed to exorcize the gay demon inside her. Fairy tales are inserted throughout the narrative; Winterson’s works as a whole have a fragmented, magical realist quality to them. The fact the main plot points overlap with Winterson’s own life experience has always been well-known, but with the release of Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? in October (in the U.K—official U.S release date is March 2012), the harsh reality of Winterson’s upbringing stand out even more starkly against the layers of her non-linear, heavily metaphorical, fictional work.
The image portrayed of Winterson’s adoptive mother, whom she calls Mrs. Winterson throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is as looming and terrifying as the “fictional” Testifying Elsie from Oranges: “Mrs. Winterson was not a welcoming woman. If anyone knocked at the door she ran down the lobby and shoved the poker through the letterbox.” Jeanette was often locked outside, left on the doorstep for hours as a very young child. Apocalyptic Bible quotes were pasted around the house. Books were banned (except for the Bible) and Mrs. Winterson burned Jeanette’s secret stash of paperbacks (“it is probably why I write as I do,” Winterson writes when she picked up the leftover fragments of burnt pages the morning after her books were burned, “collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative.”) Mrs. Winterson was physically as well as emotionally abusive, and yes, subjected her fifteen-year-old daughter to an “exorcism” because Jeanette was in love with another woman. The title of the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a direct quote from Mrs. Winterson, hurled at Jeanette when she decided to leave home at 16 to be with the woman she loved.
While leaning heavily on her childhood experience split between an abusive home in a tiny, northern working-class English town, and the escape into books through her public library, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? moves in a steady linear fashion up until Winterson’s time at Oxford (and how she had to fight to get in). It then very consciously skips twenty-five years between Winterson being in college, writing her first novel, and becoming a famous author, into her present experience of seeking out her birth mother. This is done in a very Winterson-like way, with a small chapter titled “Intermission” in which she states “I measure time as we all do, and partly by the fading body, but in order to challenge linear time, I try and live in total time. I recognize that life has an inside as well as an outside and that events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.”
Although Winterson chooses to skip her twenty-five years as a professional writer her landing in the present in the last third of the book is not layered by fiction or a magic-realist narrative, it is a very stark and real account of a long-term relationship break up, Winterson’s subsequent mental-health breakdown and suicide attempt, and the painful process of finding her birth mother.
Whether or not one is familiar with Winterson’s fictional work, this memoir stands alone. Despite tough subjects it is warm, often funny, and like any great memoir, redemptive. While offering tremendous insight into the experiences that shaped this writer’s unique voice, this memoir is not about how to become a famous writer, or even really about Jeanette Winterson—it is a memoir about seeking identity, seeking love, seeking a mother, and the power of sharing words and stories. The life-saving quality of books is celebrated: “This is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place, it’s a finding place.”
It’s all I can do to not quote all my favorite passages from Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? until I’ve quoted the whole thing. Here is another one: “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.” Yet Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is nonfiction narrative that is medicinal as well, and here, quoting Winterson again, is why this fiction writer’s memoir is so effective: “Personal stories work for other people when those stories become both paradigms and parables. The intensity of a story releases into a bigger space than the one it occupied in time and place. The story crosses the threshold from my world into yours. We meet each other on the steps of the story.” I think those last two lines will be my next tattoo.