Richelle Shem-Tov has selected Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? first published in 2011 by Vintage BooksPublished by Vintage Books, London, 2012.
Jeanette Winterson, a well-known author, writes a memoir which is a spell-binding "Cinderella story", a "rags to riches" story. She was born in 1959 in Manchester, an industrial city in the "South of the North" of England. She was born to a teenaged unmarried mother who did not have the means to keep her; and was adopted by a childless couple, themselves working-class people. The Wintersons, her adoptive parents, lived in Accrington, a town in the north of England. She gives a masterly picture of these places, of the people who lived there and their way of life. She writes of the history and the changes brought about by the industrial revolution and the two world wars; the socio-economic conditions, and the hardships surrounding their lives; the politics and conflicting ideologies of the times; the geography of the towns and beautiful surrounding landscapes.
This is all interwoven with and serves as a background to her own personal life, and an extremely difficult relationship with her adopted parents, particularly her mother, who looms large throughout the book. Mrs. Winterson - harsh, devout and strict to the point of cruelty -sees happiness as sinful. Her father is kind but is too weak to be anything but obedient to his unloving wife. They were hard-working, clean and honest people but painfully lacking in the ability to give or receive love. Their lack of love haunted and hounded this lonely child all her life. Jeanette carries with her the ever-present absence of her birth mother and the haunting question of "why?" In her adult life she sets out on a quest to find this person, and to understand.
Yet despite all this, hers is a success story. She is in love with life and never gives up on her pursuit of happiness. She refuses to be broken: "a salmon-like determination to swim upstream". Although disturbed and rebellious as a student at school, living in a home where only bible-reading was allowed, she becomes an avid reader of books – both secretly and in many hours spent in the local library - eventually graduating from Oxford: an amazing achievement. She then goes on to become a highly-regarded writer. "I wrote my way out," she writes. She credits reading the works of others as a major means of release. "We get our language back through the language of others."
Her interest in and understanding of politics in general is enlightening, but her story is also one of gender politics, of feminism, and of her own unashamed preference for women, something she discovered in a teen-age relationship with a girl-friend. This of course is totally unacceptable to her mother. From this situation comes the title of the book - at some stage her mother asks her why she does this. On replying that it brings her happiness, Mrs. Winterson comes out with a knock-out statement: "Why be happy when you could be normal?"
This unexpected reading experience was one I fell into without much enthusiasm, but as I moved along with it I became more and more intrigued. The language and word-play is stunning. While reading it for the second time, I frequently needed to stop off at some passage and re-read, not only to understand better but also to revel in the prose. This story is one of a courageous child who overcomes massive hurdles to become a successful writer. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding it, the story is one of optimism, where love, tolerance and dogged determination come out victorious. It's a book I highly recommend.
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