Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

A review of the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson.

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir by Jeanette Winterson. Winterson is famous for her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which is a fictionalised account of her childhood in a strict Pentecostal family. Winterson references Oranges many times in this book, but whereas Oranges is fictionalised, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raw, untempered truth.

I haven’t read Oranges, but from Winterson’s commentary it seems that it was fictionalised to be the version of her past that she needed it to be at the time. Oranges was published in 1985, Why Be Happy in 2011, so enough time has passed for Winterson to analyse her motives and emotional state when writing her first book. Why Be Happy is a gnarly thing; full of fury and intellectual distance. Winterson is self aware throughout, often reflecting on not just the pain of her history, but also the pain of writing about her history. It reminded me of Jeannie Vanasco’s memoir Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl, which also examines the peculiarities of writing trauma.

The temptation when reading a memoir is to assume that there is some kind of happy ending, or that the author must have reached a place of healing, growth, or reconciliation in order to sit down and write their story. Even with a non-fiction book, there is still the expectation that, because it is after all, a book it will follow some of the traditional structures in place for published narratives. The ending might not be happy, but it will be satisfactory because that is how books work.

Why Be Happy doesn’t do this. The final chapters follow Winterson as she searches for and finally meets her birth mother, but there is no feeling of coming home, or that this is the final answer. The book ends with Winterson recounting that the third time she met her birth mother, they had a screaming argument about the past. This isn’t a happy ending. It’s a true ending, one that is still full of pain and anger and unresolved issues. It makes sense emotionally, even if it doesn’t satisfy narratively.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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