Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy…is a memoir written by a young woman, likely over a number of years. Jeanette writes about a mismatched life: her real life is a mismatch to the life she wishes she were living.

Raised in a small village in 20th century England, a country she in the throes of economic, social and cultural revolutions steered notably by Margaret Thatcher. Jeanette’s family life is in upheaval also. Her mother is a rigid religious Pentecostal with a negative outlook on the world and on her daughter who she often locks out to sit on the front doorstep all night. Negative, maybe throw in pessimistic, cynical and a dooms-dayer who predicts that Armageddon is imminent but she is prepared for it with a revolver in a chest of drawers. Jeanette hungers for love and acceptance, none of which can be attained in the Winterson home. Her father, is a factory worker, poorly paid, and living a sexless, sad live of loneliness and neglect in his own home. His wife, an manic obsessive person, driven to decorating their poor village home.

In her youth, Jeanette experiences her first love with another girl. This may have set the tone for the developing years for she never talks about experiencing an heterosexual relationship. In fact, as she mature into a young adult she describes other important homosexual relationships which she has. They range from short lived to long term but neither seems to satisfy Jeanette in her quest for the Holy Grail of Happiness in her life. The last half of the narrative concentrates on her search for the complete information about her biological mother for she discovers she is adopted.


Cashews mixed with a variety of lesser nuts

The book lacks a plot in the regular or simplified sense. It would be stretch to say there is one where we read a young girls early development, discover of homosexuality, uncovering her adopted origins and pursuing her biological mother as the thread of a story, but it is the lay of the book’s land. Enter a section and instead of reading a descriptive analysis of ongoing events, instead the reader encounters a stream of consciousness where Jeanette flutters out spontaneous descriptions of whatever she remembers or is reminded of at that moment, snippets of poetry, lines from some prose written by author’s she finds significant, not necessarily good writers, nor bad. Her consciousness stream floats down like autumn leaves breezed away from their anchoring branch.

The book is like eating a can of mixed nuts, occasionally one selects a cashew, a gem of a nut. The book has quotes, descriptions, snippets and excerpts from other books, from Jeanette’s life, from her memory, from her reading and from her experiences. Like the occasional cashew, some of Jeanette’s snippets are real tasty tidbits, taste gems demonstrating a very brainy young woman with a firm retention of whatever she has read or experienced.

Reading this book is like being at a New Year’s Party with nutcracker pops sporadically exploding amid the laughter, the mirth, the chatter and the singing of the party attendees. Occasionally the explosive pop is an appropriate marker to the festivities, though more often it is a jarring interruption of the ongoing smoothness of the festivities’ good humour and frivolity. Jeannette is no intellectual slouch. In real life, she is a best selling author who has had her novel “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” made into a successful BBC Television production.

Not my kind of book…but an “attention holder”

This isn’t my kind of book. It rambles; it roams; it throws darts at a target which is an eclectic spectrum of various experiences, memories and nostalgic reminiscences. In the hands of a lesser intellect, it would be a quagmire of cerebral mud, tedious verbal slog for almost any reader.

However,  Winterson is not a mental slouch and she elevates the read to much higher intellectual levels. Many of her reflections on her life and her experiences described with allusions to the greater works of renowned authors float the book to higher cerebral lofts and captivate the reader who gives them their due.

It is a very good read but for unexpected reasons.

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