Full disclosure: I normally don't enjoy reading memoirs. Unless the writer is spectacularly gifted, unless the subject is approached from an interesting angle, unless the narrative arc is as compelling as fiction, I'd rather sit down with a good novel or some more stimulating nonfiction any day. Fortunately, Jeanette Winterson's WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? fulfills all my criteria for a memoir worth reading, and even surpasses my highest expectations.
On some level, it's surprising that Winterson chose to write a memoir at all; her award-winning, influential fiction (such as WRITTEN ON THE BODY and ORANGES AREN'T THE ONLY FRUIT) has always been autobiographical in nature. In her latest, however, Winterson not only delves deeper and more authentically into her own experience, she also comments frequently and insightfully on the confluences and divergences of her writing and her life.
"Fortunately, Jeanette Winterson's WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? fulfills all my criteria for a memoir worth reading, and even surpasses my highest expectations."
Winterson was adopted as a baby into a strict and stifling atmosphere. Her adoptive mother was a battleaxe, a devoutly (and, in many cases, hypocritically so) religious Pentecostal woman, fond of saying things like "the Devil led us to the wrong crib" when she was angry with her adopted daughter, as she often was. Winterson's adoptive father, who was likely as unhappy as Winterson herself, was passive and emotionally distant, leaving Winterson feeling both constantly threatened and fundamentally alone.
Winterson's conflicts with her mother only became more intense and damaging as she grew older and acknowledged her sexual attraction towards other women. Unable to cope with her mother's fury and disdain, longing only to escape the industrial city of Manchester where she was raised, Winterson turned her back on her childhood, only to return to it again and again in her fiction and, now, in this memoir.
This book may have the most resonance for those passionate about the written word and its capability to offer solace and salvation. At the bleakest points of Winterson's childhood --- during which she is forbidden to read any books beyond the Bible --- she sets out to read through the entire fiction section of the library, from A to Z ("I had no idea of what to read or in what order," Winterson writes, "so I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen."). She also stumbles into poetry, in which she finds true strength and power, not to mention genuine comfort: "When people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes…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." Throughout, Winterson has powerful things to say about the relevance and the absolute necessity of literature.
In the memoir's second half, as an adult Winterson embarks on the emotionally fraught project of finding her birth mother, the words of a social worker ("You were wanted --- do you understand that?") become sort of a mantra to Winterson. For a woman who perpetually conflated love with loss, who questioned on the most basic level whether she was capable of loving or of being loved, the notion of being wanted, of understanding what being wanted means, is a profound one.
Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, WHY BY HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording can --- and should --- be.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 8, 2012