Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson


I’m not a fan of the ‘misery memoir’ but I wouldn’t put Why? into that category. Yes, there are details of a difficult childhood, a breakdown in adulthood and struggling to allow herself to be loved, but it’s much more than that. It’s not a book snob thing – that somehow because she’s a ‘proper’ writer writing ‘proper things’ it can’t possibly count as just misery – it’s more that so much is weaved into the book, about place and literature and love.

I wondered whether it would be the same as Oranges are not the only fruit (the fictionalised account of her early life) but with a kind of ‘reveal’ of what was fiction/fact.  It is and it isn’t. Why? feels more like a re-examining of the past with older eyes. For example, her discovery that Mrs Winterson had prepared herself to adopt a boy, Paul, but then ended up with Jeanette, makes more sense of a few of Mrs W’s cruelties (the ‘Wrong Crib’). The hurt, the long-lasting effects, the facts don’t change, but the story around it does.  Essentially, that’s what Why? is about – the stories or narrative you have about yourself, and how it feels to be disconnected from one – in Jeanette’s case being adopted and feeling unwanted – and the process of searching for one. It’s how that narrative links with a sense (or lack of a sense) of identity. It’s not about truth versus fiction – but fiction as truth when that’s more appropriate or makes more sense. A couple of times she says she’d rather read herself as a fiction than as a fact. I think sometimes it’s easier to find truths in fiction – a good writer finding the perfect way of articulating something you’ve never even been able to put into words before. This is maybe why Mrs Winterson thought fiction was dangerous – ‘the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late’.

The style becomes more fragmented in the second half the book when she’s writing as events are occuring in the search for her birth mother.  It feels like trying to make sense of what’s happening along with her and I liked it.

Stories and poems kept her alive in the dark times, particularly growing up, and this book is also about the joy of books and how books can be a home. I move fairly frequently and, apart from making a bed to collapse in, my books are the first thing I unpack.  It’s just not home without them.

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