BOOK REVIEW: Jeanette Winterson's *Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?*

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BOOK REVIEW: Jeanette Winterson's *Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?*

In the economy of the body, the limbic highway takes precedence over the neural pathways. We were designed and built to feel, and there is no thought, no state of mind, that is not also a feeling state.

Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work very hard at feeling too little.

                  Feeling is frightening.

                  Well, I find it so....

And I have given up missionary work with heterosexual women.

I love this book so much that I’ve found it hard to form my responses into anything as coherent as a review. It’s hard not to quote half the damn thing it’s so good—never mind my words, just read it yourself, why don’t you? Winterson’s writing is, as usual, wonderful—rhythmic and cut through with surprising but yes-yes-yes-apt metaphor. This alone would make Why Be Happy a wonderful work of art, but added to that is a personal narrative told with a depth of insight and an immediacy—the final events of the book were taking place pretty much at the same time that Winterson was writing them—that is compelling and deeply moving.

Why Be Happy is a memoir of Winterson’s childhood—she was brought up by adoptive parents within an Evangelical Christian community in Accrington (an industrial town in north-west England)—skipping forward, years later, to a breakdown (read "break-through"), attempted suicide and subsequent search for and meeting with her birth mother. The first section of the book retraces the story of Winterson’s first, semi-autobiographical (Whitbread Prize-winning) novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). However, this is a much darker version of the tale, in which the physical and emotional abuse Winterson suffered, mostly from her psychologically disturbed adoptive mother, presses through more forcefully into the telling, as does the pain of these experiences and the effects they had upon Winterson’s later life. The culmination of this abuse is the three-day exorcism, involving beating, starving, sexual abuse and isolation, that Jeanette is subjected to when she is discovered to be sleeping with another girl within the Evangelical church.

In Why Be Happy, Winterson describes Oranges as the version of her childhood she could bear to write. The more complete owning of the painful content of this material in the memoir, feels to me like a coming into fuller emotional presence. It also marks for me a visibility of Winterson as authorial



Comments [2]

Marcie Bianco's picture

Winterson will be stateside

Winterson will be stateside this spring -- can't wait! thank you so much for this review, Jess....I can't wait to read it!

Tosha's picture

brava..

great review of a great book and author, Jess!  thanks