Jeanette Winterson is one of the most honest, intense and path-breaking contemporary women writers. Her memoir, Why be Happy when you Could be Normal?, published by Cape and Vintage in Britain in 2011, forthcoming in the United States this March, is a beautiful and grim book at the same time, one of those you must treat with care, for fear of breaking—your own heart.
The first part of the story is the one already once told, a quarter of a century ago, in Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985), but differently—then as the first novel of a young woman intent to make her own way into the world, now from the perspective of middle age, at the crossroads between a past rich in accomplishment and experience, and an uncertain future.
The old wounds are still there and they begin, again, to hurt. Mrs. Winterson, Jeanette’s adopted mother, who raised her fiercely to be an ardent Pentecostal Christian, denying her the basic human rights of love and the thirst for knowledge, and who had no second thoughts about submitting her to exorcism upon finding out that she liked sex and preferred girls to boys, is back to haunt her.
The story needs to be re-told, as there is something that went missing the first time round, namely the memory and traces of Jeanette’s biological mother, “the lost loss,” as she poetically puts it. But that is not all. The adopted mother, Mrs. W., she too continues to lay claim to acknowledgement, “she was a monster,” writes Jeanette, “but she was my monster.”
Following the painful breakdown of a long time relationship and the death of her father, and triggered by the discovery of an old birth certificate—her own, Jeanette thinks at first, but no, it is that of the boy who was first choice for adoption but who died, and whom she came to replace—Jeanette has a breakdown, or, using her own, more direct and truthful words, she goes mad.
Her recovery from madness after learning to speak to, and interact with, her inner child and daemon, which among others taught her to write some of the most wonderful modern-day children’s fairy tales, is the other story told by this memoir; and also how she searched and finally found her biological mother.
Like all her other books, Why be Happy when you Could be Normal? is not one that easily fits into genre specifications. It is a memoir insofar as it tells a life story; yet in its fragmented diary style that jumps from past to present and back, and which is as rich in reflection about the personal and the social as it is poetic in the discussion of English literature and the own biography, it is much more. It is “experience and experiment” and as such a break with the “received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ … while men write wide and bold.” Jeanette’s monstrous and wondrous inner child is both girl and boy, a discovery already planted in her early work, and the motivation, perhaps, for her writing about sexual identity.
In the end, for the book’s author, its ideal reader, and, perhaps, many of its actual and potential readers (and may they be many!), finding (back?) home and to a fragile sense of belonging, and away from the hysteria of mere longing, has a lot to do with learning to feel and accepting to be loved.
Looking forward to “what happens next”