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

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

‘The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex’

Jeanette Winterson has certainly been through a lot. When she left home at sixteen, her deeply religious, tyrant of an adoptive mother (Mrs Winterson) asked her, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ Falling in love with a woman was clearly the work of Satan – the first page of Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? informs us that Mrs Winterson was led by the Devil ‘to the wrong crib’.

So what did Jeanette do? Well, she rewrote the bible in the utmost queer, postmodern fashion.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit became one of the most prolific coming out stories of all time. It showed how one could rewrite the fictionalised facade of the world and turn it into something hopeful. It was a tragic tale of adoption, forced religion and deprived love. Yet it was also comical in its outlook. Full of wit and charm as well as heartache and yearning, Oranges became the bible for all gays and lesbians.

But Oranges was semi-autobiographical. The postmodern fragments of re-written events covered up the hurt and shame of various realities. So, twenty-five years later, out comes Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Winterson fills in the majority of the gaps with home truths about her childhood. When she was bad, which apparently was most of the time, she was left on the doorstep overnight to rethink her actions and repent her sins.

And when she was discovered in love with another girl, she was locked inside a cold room for three days without food. Exorcisms were performed, but alas, the demon did not leave the sinning body. A man forced his tongue into her mouth to convert her, but she bit back – pretty hard. She was crucified by society, but she died for us all. Then she came back to preach the truth to the world.

Mainly, the autobiography is about the journey towards happiness, towards belonging: ‘Longing? Yes. Belonging? No’ For Winterson, it is not the destination that is the reward, it is the search itself.

Long fascinated by stories of adventure, the Holy Grail and the idea of the route towards discovery, Winterson seems to adopt this ideology when it comes to searching for her real birth mother. After the long and arduous journey, Ann S. is located – she has been found, mapped and met. The lifelong search for the mother is over. But Winterson is all over the place. She does not settle. In The Powerbook (2000), she asserts that ‘to avoid discovery I stay on the run’ She is nomadic, ethereal being.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? explores the lows and lowers of adoption, a religious upbringing and being a lesbian in this world. It has tears, anger and breakdowns as well as smiles, laughs and sarcasm. The final chapter, separate and unnumbered from the others, is a tale of what to come without knowing, because ‘I have no idea what happens next’.

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