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Why be happy when you could be normal?

I read Oranges are not the only fruit in 2009 and the name Jeanette Winterson has since etched in the subconscious of mine when looking for the next book to read. Although I read Weight since, which I felt a little underwhelmed and have not since had the chance to read another of her book. When this memoir came along on the short loan shelf I jumped on the chance to read it.

The memoir can be read as a commentary and the motivation behind Oranges are not the only fruit.

I almost feel as if Why be happy when you could be normal? is Jeanette Winterson’s urgent need to make a closure to her past. If you are familiar with Jeanette’s novels (I called her by her first name because I feel as if I have known her), a major part is taken up by her adopted mother, Mrs Winterson, which is this larger than life, eschatologist, Pentecostal devout who lives in the wish of Apocalypse.

My mother, Mrs Winterson, didn’t love life. She didn’t believe that anything would make life better. She once told me that the universe is a cosmic dustbin – and after I had thought about this for a bit, I asked her if the lid was on or off.

‘On,’ she said, ‘Nobody escapes.’

The only escape was Armageddon – the last battled when heaven and earth will be rolled up like a scroll, and the saved get to live in eternity with Jesus. – page 22

Jeanette has this gift of being able to make light of a grave and sad situation, which makes you smile and makes your heart aches at the same time. Jeanette is labelled by Mrs Winterson as the devil’s child who ended up in the wrong crib. She was slapped and beaten, she was left hungry, locked up in the bathroom, subject to exorcism because of Mrs Winterson’s belief that she has been possessed, Jeanette was left all night on her doorstep, locked away from her own house while Mrs Winterson goes on holiday. They do not own a fridge, Jeanette is forbid to play with other children because the other children are “spiritual contaminated”. Her adopted father couldn’t protect her because he was a weak man.

The most amazing thing is to have Jeanette grew up in a household without books to become a great writer she is today. Mrs Winterson’s household is not secular therefore only 6 books Mrs Winterson were allowed at home. There were her bible and two commentaries, Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Mallory and others which are not mentioned. So Jeanette hasn’t got a clue what to read, so she reads books in alphabetical order from A to Z from the library shelf. Jane Eyre was allowed but as Mrs Winterson read aloud the book, Mrs Winterson devised her own ending with Jane Eyre marrying John the missionary.

“I suppose the saddest thing for me,” Winterson writes now, “thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.” and here in this book is her heartbreaking account of her childhood which pain and haunt her.

It is often true that children who grew up in an unhappy childhood grew up to be an unhappy adult. The heartaches didn’t stop there, at 16 Jeanette is evicted for taking up with a second girlfriend (the attempts to exorcise her sexuality after the first having been unsuccessful). “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is what Mrs Winterson said to Jeanette when she left her home, for good. She spent the next few years in her life living in her car, on handouts and favours, working at the market and miraculously gain a place at St Catherine’s College, in Cambridge to study English. Yet her lost sense of belonging plagues Jeanette through her adult life of failed romances, living to the extremes, a void that cannot be filled, her desire to feel belonged and her quest to find her biological mother.

The memoir is written sparsely, with each chapter recalling a chapter in Jeanette’s life, not necessarily linear in narration. It is sometimes so summarise that it reads like a precise but the effect for me was strong. The words that she wrote are succinct, precise and stab straight to my heart. It is turbulent, not always easy to read, emotionally. The terrible sorrow was unleashed between the pages, I felt those terrible sorrows were mine. Like her, my only anchor in life then was books. Books saved me from falling into the abyss of despair.

Where you are born – what you are born into , the place, the history of the place, how that history mates with your own – stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation have to say. – page 16

Home was a place of order. A place where the order of things come together – the living and the dead – the spirits of the ancestors and the present inhabitants, and the gathering up and stilling of all the to-and-fro.

Leaving home can only happen because there is a home to leave. And the leaving is never just a geographical or spatial separation; it is an emotional separation – wanted or unwanted. Steady or ambivalent.

For the refugee, for the homeless, the lack of the crucial coordinate in the placing of the self has severe consequences. At best, it must be managed, made up for in some way. At worst, a displaced person, literally, does not know which way is up, because there is no true north. No compass point. Home is much more than shelter; home is our centre of gravity. – page 58

Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space. There is warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep. – page 61

Back cover

I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it.

And here is the shock – when you risk it, when you do the right thing, when you arrive at the borders of common sense and cross into unknown territory, leaving you all the familiar smells and lights, then you do not experience great joy and huge energy.

You are unhappy. Things get worse.

It is a time of mourning. Loss. Fear. We bullet ourselves through with questions. And then we feel shot and wounded.

And then all the cowards come out and say, ‘See, I told you so.’

In fact, they told you nothing.   –  Page 64

Love is vivid. I never wanted the pale version. Love is full strength. I never wanted the diluted version. I never shied away from love’s hugeness but i had no idea that love could be as reliable as the sun. The daily rising of love. – page 77

I suppose it is because of the forking paths. I keep seeing my life darting off in the different directions it could have taken, as chance and circumstance, temperament and desire, open an close, open and close gates, routes, roadways.

And yet there feels like an inevitability to who I am – just as of all the planets in all the universes, planet blue, this planet Earth, is the one that is home.

I guess that over the last few years I have come home. I have always tried to make a home for myself, but I have not felt at home in myself. I have worked hard at being the hero of my own life, but every time I checked the register of displaced persons, I was still on it. I didn’t know how to belong.

Long? Yes. Belonging? No.    – Page 209

Besides her childhood, Jeanette writes about the era that she grew up with, her political and feminist views about the world. One of my most memorable scenes from the book is the one where Mrs Winterson made a bonfire out of Jeanette’s treasured book collection. Books that she saved up from her work at the market to own them. All went up in smoke. Instead of being discouraged and beaten by this, Jeanette resolved to memorise text because what is inside her will never be destroyed, she can write her own.

And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do.

‘F**k it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.’ – page 43

Blessed is the one who turn one tragic moment into strength and became a positive turning point in one’s life.

Out of her repressive childhood and depression, this is a story of hope. Beside the impressive words that are written here, Jeanette’s life is impressive. It is a story about forgiveness, so that the characters who were demons at the start, especially Mrs Winterson and to certain extent Jeanette’s acquiescent adoptive father, ended their lives in a very sad and sorry state. In the process of uncovering that, she painstakingly unpicks the damage they made on her. The peace she makes with her adoptive family is, in this sense, more important and evocative than tracking down and accepting her birth mother. I do not want to spoil it for you, but I just feel the last sentiment that Jeanette’s express about not knowing if she would accept her birth mother made the whole situation even sadder.

I find this passage on the pursuit of happiness encourage the likes of us who thinks we are not always happy, to accept that happiness is a pursuit not a permanent state:

The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection.

Read on its own that is an absurd sentence. But as I try and understand how life works – and why some people cope better than others with adversity – I come back to something to do with saying zest to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love for the self, however found. Not in the me-first way that is the opposite of life and love, but with a salmon-like determination to swim, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream….

Which brings me back to happiness, and a quick look at the word.

Our primary meaning now is the feeling of pleasure and contentment; a buzz, a zestiness, the tummy upwards feel of good and right and relax and alive… you know….

But earlier meanings build in the hap – in Middle English, that is ‘happ’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’ – the chance or fortune, good or bad, that falls to you. Hap is your lost in life, the hand you are given to play.

How you meet your ‘hap’ will determine whether or not you can be ‘happy’.

What the Americans, in their constitution, call ‘the right to the pursuit of happiness’ (please note, not ‘the right to happiness’), is the right to swim upstream, salmon wise.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.

If the sun is shining, stand in it – yes, yes, yes, Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes.

The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centred.

What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life. There’s the hap – the gate, the draw that is yours, and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphors you want to use – that’s going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will do so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.

The pursuit isn’t all or nothing – it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.

–          Page 25, chapter 2 ‘My advice to anybody is get born’

And most heartbreaking of all:

“I am interested in nature / nurture. I notice that I hate Ann (Jeanette’s biological mother) criticising Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster.”

I think Jeanette was fortunate to have an optimistic disposition by nature, as she soon discovers with her search of her birth mother. The question of nature and nurture has shaped Jeanette’s life in many ways but in this case I am pleased that nature has triumphed.

Enough of me saying how good this book is, read this, you won’t regret it.


Hardback. Publisher: Jonathan Cape 2011; Length: 230 pages; Setting: North England and London, UK.  Source: Library copy. Finished reading at: 19th January 2012.

Other views:

Read a wonderful review from Asylum:

Asylum: The three elements in the book – love, literature, life in the world – are ultimately inseparable. Mrs Winterson “read the Bible as though it had just been written – and perhaps it was like that for her. I got a sense early on that the power of a text is not time-bound. The words go on doing their work.” Jeanette not only explains but shows how her childhood informed her fiction, including the lack of straightforward narrative which she attributes in part to her own life’s lack of narrative. ”That’s not method; that’s me.” She gives new life to the textual refrains from her books which ring like mantras for those who know her work well.

For books sake: Written in her characteristic caustic style, whose raw emotion punches you in the belly and then storms out of the room without looking back, it follows her quest for identity, for mother and for roots.

Without the Mrs Winterson and adoption stories, she would not have had the fight that makes her the writer she is, but it was in English literature A-Z that she found roots and foundations that she could rely on.

It is in generating words that she finds a present that she can cope with and a heritage to pass on to others. The explorations of home, of mother, of love, of time are not simply asides to make the book more interesting or to display her knowledge and erudition. They are who she is. It is through those passages that she narrates her self into existence.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


12 thoughts on “Why be happy when you could be normal?

  1. This sounds interesting! I do like memoirs. It reminds me a bit of the other Jeanette, Jeanette Walls, although I think Walls had an even more depraved live. Awful, how some children have to grow up.

    The writing style seems a bit dense, which I sometimes like, but not always. I think it depends on my patience at the moment of reading the book.

    Posted by Leeswammes | January 23, 2012, 7:59 pm
    • I thought her writing was succinct and straight to the point. It’s a small book, try reading it and you will understand what I mean. Jeanette conveys so much more in a short paragraph than anyone could. Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by JoV | January 23, 2012, 8:09 pm
  2. her life story is quite heartbreaking really ,I read oranges are only fruit when the tv series was shown in the 90’s ,I may pick this up if I find it second hand which sure it will be some time in next year or so ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | January 23, 2012, 8:57 pm
  3. Stu,
    I hope you do. It is really heartbreaking. There is a lot of raw emotion and pain which reminds us how important it is for children to have a happy childhood so that they grow up to be wholesome and happy. I got this from the library but I will get my own copy later this year.

    Posted by JoV | January 23, 2012, 9:50 pm
  4. I LOVED THIS BOOK!!! Loved it so much I had to write that first sentence in all caps… actually, when I get around to writing about this on my blog, I’ll probably start with that line. This book burrowed its way deep into my heart and profoundly changed me. Every sentence was like a precious jewel and I kind of wonder what the hell I’ve been doing not reading everything Winterson has ever written. Consider that about to change right now!

    Posted by Steph | January 23, 2012, 10:02 pm
    • Steph,
      lol 😀 Winterson writes in way that touches my heart in a way that very, very few authors would. I read this quite quickly and I was afraid if I read it again every word will sear through my heart and it will bleed. You have rightly said, every sentence was like a precious gem. I want to read the rest of what she had written. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | January 23, 2012, 10:15 pm
  5. Oh, how sad, profound and uplifting. A pity Mrs Winterson was a monster because she was obviously witty, creative and of strong mind and will. If only she had channeled it somewhere else… But who am I to suggest that; that’s how she lived her life. It’s amazing to me how harmful some adults can be to the well-being of children. But Jeanette found a home in books and that has made all the difference. Thanks for the review.

    Posted by Kinna | February 2, 2012, 5:07 am
    • Kinna,
      It’s a pity, isn’t it? You have described Mrs Winterson well. If only Mrs Winterson was a little uplifting…. unbeknownst to her, she has caused so much misery to Jeanette and that I felt that she wrote this book to exorcise the past. Books are home, and I can testify wholeheartedly to that!

      Posted by JoV | February 2, 2012, 9:56 pm


  1. Pingback: January 2012: Wrap-up « JoV's Book Pyramid - February 6, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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