That’s the big question isn’t it, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Again we have arrived at a novel that seems to have appeared just at the right time. I have had a busy few weeks and have lost some of the reading momentum that I gained last month, but I have also been to Paris and finally graduated. In Paris I was lucky enough to find a couple more members of what I consider my ‘tribe’ and certainly came home a little more myself than when I left for the airport. In my downtime it was of course time for something that would make me ponder. Why Be Happy is Jeanette Winterson’s silent twin to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. But instead of the cover story of surviving adoption into a strictly Christian household Why Be Happy is a reflection on the reality of Winterson’s upbringing and herself.
This is one of those novels where Winterson’s writing is at it’s best. It is generous with humour, it is beautiful in agony and it takes you on a journey into madness and out again. But Why Be Happy also reads an analytical exploration, if one was sitting across from Winterson having a chat about her upbringing, life, love, political views and how books may have just rescued her more than once.
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. – p. 40
When I picked up this novel I knew nothing about Winterson really other than I enjoy her work and she is an author I always seem to gravitate towards. After putting this novel down, I admire her. I admire her resilience, the blunt manner she unravels herself with and most of all I admire such close to the bone honesty with the reader. Even in moments where someone else may feel they have lost dignity or made ill informed decisions, Why Be Happy retains an integrity that is unshakable because of it’s frankness.
It is the story of Winterson’s life from Birth. Adoption, her mother (probably depressed), eternally describing the coming apocalypse of quite honestly not feeling like the ‘right’ child and being told that frequently by Mrs. Winterson. A quiet almost absent father who remarries later on in life after Mrs. Winterson has passed away. From what seem to be grim beginnings, that include poor grades and a disrupted school life, there are still books. The beginning of this book is full of dislocation, a screaming baby that is nicknamed the ‘devils child’, and a mother who tries to want to be soft and longs to find her adopted child is the child she expected.
Were we endlessly ransacking the house, the two of us, looking for evidence of each other? I think we were – she, because I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me. Me, because I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing. We circled each other, wary, abandoned, full of longing. – p. 103
When young Jeanette Winterson discovers the library she begins reading from Literature from A to Z. But the private war that has always belonged to the Winterson household, sometimes seen by the neighbours when Jeannette is locked out for the night and sleeps on the doorstep, still rages. Mrs. Winterson has banned books from the house (except the bible). But Jeannette smuggles them in. They are promptly burnt on discovery. But this does not dissuade Jeannette, but seems to encourage her thirst for knowledge for what is outside her family and she hangs onto what she loves and who she is with even more violence.
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. – p. 61
Then there is first loves, and specifically falling in love with women which is distinctly not ‘normal’ or acceptable in the eyes of Mrs. Winterson. And then university and publication and after a lifetime of not knowing, Jeanette Winterson decides to find her birth mother and unravel the mystery of her beginnings.
It is a poignant novel that speaks volumes about mental health and even in part the creative processes and the misconstrued ideas that couple with them. But this novel also ends at what almost feels like a midpoint because Winterson is obviously not done with her own story and life has an inevitable ending that can’t be written, beyond an obituary.
Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity minus that tries to save us from madness. – p171
But it also encourages the reader not to think of happiness as a continual state or of something that can be achieved like a goal in a race. It demonstrates that happiness is something to work on, and work for. It is sometimes fleeting, it sometimes escapes us for months, but it is worth pursuing in the long run. I often find myself thinking of this novel as a bit of a warning. Overall this read was much more satisfying to me than Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I felt that one seemed to be a deflection, it lacked something for me that didn’t quite grasp me but instead encouraged me to look elsewhere which I suppose vs. Why Be Happy was the point of that novel.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is a text I take a good helping of hope from I am a young working class writer, dyslexic, and recently graduated from an MA and differ greatly from what is ‘usual’. Normality, or at least Mrs. Winterson’s version of normality is a bleak place where she disappears for days at a time when she leaves egg custard in the kitchen, and is forever unpleasant to her daughter and insisting that the apocalypse is coming so we must all be miserable in time for that.
So I entirely agree. Why be normal, or someone else’s version of it, when you could be happy.