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

by Caren Wilton / 19 November, 2011
The real story behind Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Jeanette Winterson was just 25 when her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985. Billed as semi-autobiographical, Oranges was the extraordinary, disturbing, often hilarious tale of a young woman growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family in industrial northern England and their horrified reaction to her lesbianism.

Winterson’s fiction-writing career has been sometimes stellar, sometimes patchy; now she has produced a memoir. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? covers the Oranges period and Winterson’s first year studying at Oxford, after which she saw her adoptive mother for the last time. It then bypasses 25 years to tell a more recent story – how she re-engaged with the fact of her adoption, and the descent into (and emergence from) madness this prompted.

From the first line, the book is about Winterson’s ongoing – and ultimately unresolved – tussle with her mother. The formidable Mrs Winterson (as she’s called throughout the book) regularly locked her young daughter out of the house overnight, and claimed to have been led to “the wrong crib” by the devil. She also kept a revolver in a drawer, refused to have sex with her husband and waited impatiently for the coming apocalypse.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Winterson was a difficult, lonely child – “too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd”. Raised in a house where there were only six books, she took refuge in the local library, reading her way through its collection alphabetically, and buying and hiding books in her room. When her mother discovered the stash beneath Winterson’s mattress – unfortunately, the first book she laid her hands on was DH Lawrence’s Women in Love – she set them all alight in the backyard.

It’s a disturbing scene, and yet it only made Winterson more determined to cling to the lifeline she had found in literature. “I had realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe.” She began to memorise texts – and then realised she could write her own.

So, yes, Oranges was largely autobiographical, and its writing was a way for Winterson to claim her own story – although, heartbreakingly, she included a character who protects the young protagonist, “because I couldn’t bear to leave her out … There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.”

Winterson has struggled throughout her life to find or make a home. She left home at 16 after a brutal “exorcism” of the supposed demons of her lesbianism and slept first in a car and then in a spare room at a teacher’s place. She compares herself to “the way cats like to be half in, half out … I too am the wild and the tame. I am domestic, but only if the door is open.”

But if the book is a poignant exploration of the impacts of an unstable and often frightening childhood – and of adoption and loss, and the quest to reclaim the lost – it’s also a detailed and affectionate portrait of northern English working-class life in the 1960s and 70s. It was a place and time when “books were few and stories were everywhere”, when market day meant bellowing stallholders selling whelks and eels, when a rag-and-bone cart still picked up junk door to door.

Interestingly, too, Winterson remembers a richness in the Pentecostal church her family belonged to, which gave its members “a deeper, more thoughtful life that would have been possible without the church … We had no bank accounts, no phones, no cars, no inside toilets, often no carpets, no job security and very little money. The church was a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility.”

And yet – like Winterson’s childhood home – it was also a place of abuse, a place where love came with conditions and could not be relied on. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? suggests Winterson has spent the rest of her life – including much of her writing career – trying to resolve those contradictions.

WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL?, by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape, $39.99).

Caren Wilton is a ­Wellington writer.

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