I started on the memoir “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” without knowing Jeanette Winterson’s background as an award-winning English writer and her semi-autobiographical novel “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit”, and even though in the beginning I was not quite used to a writing style which was too disorganised and too stream-of-consciousness – a style which she characterises at some point as “collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative” – the further I made my way through it, the more absorbed I became. There is an honesty which draws the reader into this heart-wrenching growing-up narrative and which offers glimpses into the powerful emotions.
The title comes from an exchange Winterson has with her adoptive mother, who was the primary reason for her difficult childhood and adolescence. The memoir is largely chronological – with reflective passages and literary references weaved in – tracing her initial years in Accrington, Lancashire, her coming out as lesbian and leaving home to read English at the University of Oxford, her relationships as well as the challenges across her literary career, and finally the bureaucratic and draining journey of searching for her biological mother (which she describes as a “retro adoption experience”. Undergirding all these experiences is the impact that literature has had on her:
“Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating. The wider we read the freer we become”.
There are also so many more themes packed into “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” – on love and relationships (learning how to love and to be loved), on time and grappling with the past and the future (especially when dealing with a painful past and having no genuine familial support around you), as well as on perpetual anxiety and uncertainty (when the notion of home and a sense of belonging have hardly been present) – and while the author’s episodes may be unfamiliar to some of us, they do prompt much-needed reflection.