Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy?’

There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people. —Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson Grove Press, 230 pp.

 Novelist Jeanette Winterson’s searing memoir about life with her depressive mother in working-class England breaks the rules that American memoirists live by. By the rules I mean our emphasis on scene. I won’t bash scene—it’s vital for really conveying one’s experience—and usually scene is deepened and balanced with exposition: summary and reflection. Instead, Winterson’s story is heavily expository—she tells this tale, and she reflects upon it, all from some distance. Scenes come in brief flashes or are heavily interlarded with exposition. She gives the perspective of the writer at her desk rather than that of the child who was “shut in a coal hole” or locked out all night on the family’s doorstep.

Reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? took some recalibration, but this Yank got into it, impressed by the distilled rigor of Winterson’s thought, by the cadence of her sentences, by the coldness of her eye, by the still-raw pain that emerges, by the writer’s honesty about her own ornery self.

Forbidden books saved her, sent her to Oxford, to life, to a distinguished literary career with seventeen books on the shelf. Here she is on literature, first on Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur: 

     In fact, there are more than two chances—many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/ returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

And of course I loved the Lancelot story because it is all about longing and unrequited love.

Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

. . .

     So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.

It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

. . .

     I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost. . . .

It took me a long time to realize that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.

The Times (UK) is quoted on the memoir’s cover: “Arguably the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years.”

I supposed this an overstatement—but Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? does feel like some kind of masterpiece. For some reason, perhaps her originality, Winterson reminds me of Gertrude Stein.

Winterson is the author of the autobiographical novel about a young lesbian, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Like Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, it’s about an adopted girl growing up in the north of England with a huge, depressive, religious fanatic Pentecostal mother and a kindly but passive father. It may be that her novel is scenic—I haven’t yet read it—and that like many fiction writers, Winterson tends to tell rather than show in her nonfiction.

This aspect didn’t merit a mention in a review by Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times Book Review, so maybe I’m overstating what struck me. Harrison writes:

     It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson [what Winterson calls her mother] imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” Winterson observes, inspiring the question always asked of writers like her, who appear to have transcended misfortunes that might have crippled or silenced another. How did Jeanette Winterson recover from the fantastically bad luck of landing in the embrace of a woman who understood motherhood as a daily struggle with the Devil over the ownership of her child’s soul?

Winterson also writes about her own dominant temperament, her over-reactive rages and black moods. She traces her bereft nature, her soul filled with inconsolable loss, to the fact that her birth mother, only seventeen, gave her up after breastfeeding her for six weeks. She is convinced that she felt the rejection—as was I by the end of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what her adoptive mother said upon learning that Winterson was gay and intended live with her lovers blissfully and openly. In other words, normal people are unhappy, so get over yourself and join them in their misery. (“Mrs. Winterson was gloriously wounded, like a medieval martyr, gouged and dripping for Jesus, and she dragged her cross for all to see.”)

When Winterson escapes her Dickensian childhood for Oxford she reflects:

     The night I left home I felt that I had been tricked or trapped into going—and not even by Mrs. Winterson, but by the dark narrative of our life together.

Her fatalism was so powerful. She was her own black hole that pulled in all the light. She was made of dark matter and her force was invisible, unseen except in its effects.

Strangely, perhaps, Winterson does not condemn her mother’s fundamentalist church, or even her warped, apocalyptic, Old Testament mother. Her mother was unbelievably strange: she hung watercolors, inherited from her mother, with their faces against the wall because of the Bible’s admonition against graven images. But people lived a “deeper, more thoughtful life” because of that woman’s church, her adopted daughter says, and studying the Bible “worked their brains”; they belonged to “something big, something important” that lent their lives unity and meaning. Winterson elaborates:

     A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt, and reproduce—we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives—money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning—it is not yet clear how this will happen.

Suddenly and rather surprisingly, three-quarters of the way through, this literature-saturated reminiscence becomes a tale of Winterson’s search for her birth mother. There are surprises galore in that story, which fuels the memoir’s growing power. I won’t give it away. But the book soars at the end with a meditation on wounds, and another, even more astringent, on love. Winterson riffs on the wounded in classical literature, and writes:

     The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.

What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out—literally and symbolically—by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.

I’ll say this about this not-very-scenic memoir. I want to read it again. That’s because, I think, it isn’t merely a recitation or recreation of a dysfunctional childhood. It’s no Angela’s Ashes. Rather it is about someone who made something of what was made of her—and that’s always interesting, always news. Winterson doesn’t convey experience as much as she conveys the residue of that experience. Herself. Her mind. Her happiness, or at least her feeling of being lucky, that she has the life she does because she became herself, forged by books, by Oxford, and yes, by Mrs. Winterson.

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10 Comments

Filed under essay-classical, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

10 responses to “Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy?’

  1. I adored this book and felt it to be true memoir — I always saw Angela’s Ashes as a member of the autobiography family — because it does such a good job of wrestling with the answers to the question, So, what did it mean? Great review as always.

    • Beth, thank you for commenting, and you make a neat distinction between memoir and autobiography that hadn’t occurred to me. This angle also raises the issue of popular taste and popular culture vs. literary taste and literary culture.

      Angela’s Ashes and The Glass Castle are heavily scenic; McCourt has a couple expository pages in his adult’s voice and then we’re hearing his child’s voice, while Walls frames her narrative with short, somewhat reflective sections. She didn’t get quite the literary respect he did, it seemed to me—probably because he’d “done that already”—but both books were huge bestsellers.

      Despite it’s artistic value and its status in the literary community, Winterson’s book isn’t for the masses. It’s distanced from the juicy stuff, the events of her childhood, and it’s rather postmodern: readers kind of have to put the pieces of the narrative together themselves.

      All this leaves me wondering about if there are different, unstated standards for fiction and nonfiction. Meantime, a balanced approach for memoirists seems safest to me—can that even be calculated, though, and should it??

  2. I just finished Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, which I found thanks to your review, and now I’m on to Jeanette Wilkerson’s memoir.

    “What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out—literally and symbolically—by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference.” This quote reached in a twisted some vital organ in me. I suddenly realized how I value my own wounds.

    Thanks for leading me to yet another clue, Richard.

  3. That’s “reached in and twisted. . .

  4. Richard, so good to have your thoughts and your voice here again! I heard Wilkerson a few weeks (months?) ago being interviewed on NPR. I made a mental note to read this book. Now I have double reasons to do so.

    As one who has to remind myself to make more scenes, I find this perspective very helpful. The secret must be distillation to essence and then express succinctly and surprisingly. I can observe this better than replicate it. 🙂 But observation is the first step. Right? Thanks for helping me observe. Again.

    • Hi Shirley—good to have you back, too. I think writers indeed must become aware of technique in others’ work and their own. Which makes me wonder why Winterson made the choice she did—I doubt it was an accident! She’s so steeped in literature. I have got to read her Oranges to see how she handled it there—if not heavily scenic, it’s probably more scenic, and surely told deeply from the child’s point of view. Her memoir is totally from her adult viewpoint.

      Maybe she just didn’t want to recreate her childhood, that was not the point, or her interest, but to reflect upon it as a way to approach the issues it embodies, especially early wounds and the ability to love. But as I mentioned above in my reply to Beth Kephart, her book is for serious readers of literature, and frankly if she were unknown it might have a hard time even getting published because agents and editors would say it’s not very commercial, which it isn’t, like poetry.

  5. How did you respond to her leap through time? She cuts about 20 years from her story, which I found a tad arrogant because I hadn’t read her work before (other than Written on the Body). It made me wonder: Is this fame or an assumption that the reader knows her story already (from Oranges)?
    Perhaps the reflective narrator was the key: She didn’t want to bring her focus on those years. But a part of me wish she’d given us more than a glimpse.

    • I’ve gotten more tolerant about such leaps, Christin. It does amaze me how readily most readers go along with it, too. I guess we are easily bored and want the “good stuff.” But in her case, I’m not sure this book would even have been published without her having built her reputation and fame! And that leap might be one problematic aspect, but probably more the lack of depiction of what she’s talking about would be a hurdle.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful (as always) review. I have Winterson’s book on my reading list and now will move it up to next place (also currently reading “Wild” like a previous post). It should be interesting. Strayed is such a strong scene-writer — and still is able to add reflection, skillfully keeping the voice very close to the bone of the person she was. I absolutely swooned when reading some of the excerpts you posted here from JW’s book. Good literature is indeed life-saving!