Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

by Emma Ashmere

‘Our life at home was a bit odd,’ writes Jeanette Winterson in her marvellously titled memoir, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ It is the growing awareness and later struggle with this ‘oddness’ which lies at the heart of this compelling book.

When Winterson burst onto the literary scene with her bestselling novel ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’, she was only twenty-five. Heralded as a brilliant new talent and derided with equal fervour by her critics, Winterson was never going to fit the mould.

Her entry to Oxford was against all odds. Raised in an Apocalypse-obsessed Pentecostal household in the impoverished northern English town of Accrington, all books were shunned, except for the bible. And all roads led to working in the dog biscuit factory.

When ‘Oranges’ appeared and was adapted into a prize-winning BBC series, conjecture swirled over which elements were ‘true’ or invented. Twenty-five years on, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ reads as a masterfully crafted reflection on some of those questions, as well as a meditation on loss, forgiveness, madness and belonging.

Much of the book hangs on the precarious relationships with the author’s two mothers. There is the continuing roller coaster reconnection with her birth mother Ann, ‘a little red thing’ who apparently gave birth to her ‘as easy as a cat’. Her adopted mother, Mrs Constance Winterson looms ‘larger than life’ in every sense. She despises ‘being a nobody’ and steers Jeanette towards missionary work. However, when Jeanette falls in love with a girl at the age of sixteen, Mrs Winterson throws her out.

The beauty of this memoir is its capacity to go wider and deeper than the author’s own life. Winterson captures a now vanished Britain, where bathrooms were a luxury. Convinced that ‘where you are born…stamps who you are’, the town’s social and economic history is effortlessly interwoven with her own troubled genesis. Brick by local ‘Nori’ brick, Winterson builds up images of thriving marketplaces and eccentric shopkeepers. You can almost hear the ‘vast steam-powered gaslit factories’ which once pounded day and night, where men and women worked gruelling twelve-hour shifts. Her own poetic recollections are shot through with pithy references to Marx and Engels, Stein and Woolf. Even when trapped in claustrophobic and austere terrain, the escape route offered by books is never far away. The result is a compassionate and hopeful telling of one remarkable writer’s life.

Published in the Northern Rivers Echo

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in May 2020 by Wakefield Press.