Why would Jeanette Winterson be normal when she could be happy?

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape 2011)

20111227-185519.jpg I read this aloud to the Art Student (who insists, in the face of mounting pressure, that her nom de blog not progress to ‘the Artist’) on a leisurely drive from Sydney to Melbourne. We made it through all but 30 pages. It was a good choice for the gig.

The book is in two unequal parts. In the first, longer part Jeanette Winterson revisits territory she covered in her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: her relationship with her adoptive mother, a terror to Jeanette as a child but a gift beyond price to a novelist. The title of the book quotes the response of Mrs Winterson, as she is often called here, when teenaged Jeanette told her she was in love with a woman. Another of her striking utterances may have been almost as attractive as a title: ‘The trouble with books is you don’t know what’s in them until it’s too late.’ The experiences recounted in this section have clearly been thought about long and deep. I haven’t read the novel, and don’t know what’s distinctive about this version. There are some colourful bits about her mother’s response to the novel, but at the end of this section, roughly two thirds of the way through the book, there was no obvious reason why it had been written at all.

And then, after a two-page ‘Intermission’, it takes off. In the second section, which a note at the end tells us was written as the events it describes unfolded – that is, without knowledge of the outcome – the author tells of a period of severe mental distress that followed the break-up of a long-term relationship and her discovery of some papers that seem to be her birth records. This leads to a search for her birth mother, which is eventually successful. The whole long first section provided necessary background and orientation: we need it to grasp the force of the emotional turmoil and the extraordinary effect of some key phrases, which might otherwise seem to be ordinary, even platitudinous. What we get is a revelation about the powerful feelings that can attach to an adopted person’s search for birth parents. We also get an account of an experience that in another person might have been medicated, but here is an extraordinary, if painful, process of discovery and blossoming.

This is a marvellous book.

4 responses to “Why would Jeanette Winterson be normal when she could be happy?

  1. As a long-time reader of Winterson who’s extremely conflicted about her work and also adopted I will definitely get a copy of this. Thanks, Jonathan.

  2. Pingback: Adam Mars-Jones reviews ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson · LRB 26 January 2012 « Steffan Jones-Hughes

  3. Jonathan, thanks so much for this review. I have downloaded and read the book, and will soon read it again. I found it gripping, thought-provoking, also irritating, but overall extremely satisfying. In other words, I loved it.

  4. Hi M-H. I just re-read my post and I’m surprised I didn’t mention irritation. Maybe JW is less irritating when you’re reading her aloud. I can certainly understand why your ittitation. She makes so many confident generalisations about the psychology of adopted people based as far as I can tell entirely on her own highly idiosyncratic experience, it would be hard to imagine any adopted person not being annoyed at least some of the time. But I’m glad you love it, spikes and all.

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