Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir as unconventional and winning as the rollicking bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice. This new book wrings humor from adversity, as did the fictionalized version of Winterson’s youth, but the ghastly childhood transfigured there is not the same as the one vivisected here in search of truth and its promise of setting the cleareyed free ... It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian.
The first half of this coming-of-age story is arresting and suspenseful, even though we know perfectly well that Jeanette will remain a lesbian, despite her mother’s best efforts, and will become a bestselling and influential writer. Winterson has a wonderfully off-kilter sense of humor about her dark past, but she is a loopy writer in the structural sense, too, preoccupied with the nonlinear nature of time. She swoops between present and past, between narrative and contemplation, with grace and economy ... Because [the second half] extends into the present, this section does not have — perhaps cannot have — the freeing distance of irony, of deadpan delivery, that the earlier part so effectively deploys. Winterson’s account of recovery and reunion with her birth mother is certainly moving — only a Mrs. W. would not be shaken — but the memoir’s second half sometimes seems plain and unWintersonesque in the telling.
Jeanette Winterson's memoir is written sparsely and hurriedly; it is sometimes so terse it's almost in note form. The impression this gives is not of sloppiness, but a desperate urgency to make the reader understand ... There is much here that's impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one's sympathy, for everyone involved, so that the characters who are demons at the start – her adoptive mother but also, to a degree, her acquiescent adoptive father – emerge, by the end, as simply, catastrophically damaged. In the process of uncovering that, she painstakingly unpicks the damage they wreaked on her.
Surprises abound in Jeanette Winterson’s painfully candid and often very funny memoir of her girlhood in a North England household ruled by an adoptive Pentecostal mother—the 'flamboyant depressive' Mrs. Constance Winterson ... Winterson’s memoir has the unsettling air of the most disturbing fairy tales—those in which there would seem to have been a happy ending, after much fearful struggle; yet the happy ending turns out to be a delusion, and the old malevolence returns redoubled ... Writing Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is clearly an act of exorcism on the part of the writer, a way of assuaging her 'radioactive anger' as well as a blackly comic valentine of sorts in commemoration of the upbringing that, after all, has resulted in Jeanette Winterson ... Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is, in a less original and engaging way, a kind of self-help manual. Winterson has obviously been in therapy and would seem to have benefited enormously from it, judging from the fact of this memoir, as much as its literary quality.
Around half of the book retraces familiar ground and may be more shocking for those who happened to miss the great stir that her bold debut caused in 1985. For the initiated, it remains compelling, in fact, perhaps more so when compared to the fictionalised version written by Winterson as a 25-year-old. Then, passion and anger seemed to burn off the page ... It is when we move past her early years in Lancashire to Winterson's depression, her attempt at suicide, and her journey to track down her biological mother, that the life story becomes less familiar, and most moving ... If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her.
We are shown 'how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness', and come to respect Winterson’s psychological courage and her rage to love, despite the 'savage lunatic' she discovers inside herself ... The prose spills with questions, reflection and information. Winterson is full of books, and wants us to know those she most esteems. She quotes poetry, novels, plays and hymns. She gives idiosyncratic snatches of social and political history. She talks of Freud, Jung, God and fairy tales. We learn that dog biscuits taste like the real thing if you dip them in sugar, and that it’s possible to mend a clutch cable with two bolts and a can of Tizer.
...she has undertaken an altogether more unconventional, ambitious project in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, a memoir about how the stories we tell can bring us closer to the truth or help us hide from it. 'Part fact part fiction is what life is,' Winterson writes. 'And it is always a cover story' ... Winterson confronts her actions, personality quirks, even sexuality, with a kind of violence, as if forcing herself to be honest ... Living happily, Winterson realises, is about containing demons; one of the book’s finest passages deals with how Winterson (whose current partner is the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach) argued with her inner, suicidal self ... The urgency of Winterson’s language, often excessive and with a heavy reliance on ellipses, make the book read a little like a first draft. Yet, for all its eccentricities, the prose is often breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty and vigorous all at once.
Jeanette Winterson has proved herself a writer of startling invention, originality and style. Her combination of the magical and the earthy, the rapturous and the matter-of-fact, is unique. It is a strange and felicitous gift, as if the best of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was combined with the best of Alan Bennett ... It is a testament to the subtlety and control of Jeanette Winterson’s prose that this monstrous woman, who, by her coldness and her madness and her misery, caused her only child such dreadful suffering, emerges from these pages as a figure of dark comedy, even of pathos ... the memoir is brave and beautiful, a testament to the forces of intelligence, heart and imagination. It is a marvellous book and a generous one.
Winterson’s new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, revisits the material of the first novel and then skips a quarter of a century, rather abruptly, to describe a recent crisis and its partial resolution, through a new lover, Susie Orbach, and the establishing of contact with her birth mother ... There’s a frequent effect of slippage, a grinding of gears between memoir and newspaper column, that secular sermonette. A lament for the well-meaning replacement of the King James Bible by more narrowly relevant versions reads like a transplanted think-piece ... Winterson carried over into her new life and her new personality the remnant of a Pentecostal certainty, refusing all shadows, but over time it can be a strain to project yourself as both an exception and an example, and the insistence on not being damaged can seem like damage in another form.
Winterson's memoir of an abusive upbringing can at times give the sense of a therapeutic wound-draining exercise, a complaint session with primary benefits for its author. But she takes it further, talking about how literature can be a lifeline to isolated and abused children ... The memoir's bleak recounting would threaten to sink the reader at times if not for Winterson's sharp sense of humour ... Winterson deftly alerts us, in a distinctly unacademic way, to the personal, historical and social underpinnings of literature. What great forces lead a 25-year-old working-class woman from a cotton-mill town, rejected by her family and pronounced a sinner, to write a bestselling novel? As Winterson's oeuvre of ideas is evolving still, we can only hope for more memoir writing from her.
Winterson explains the genesis of her fragmentary writing style—which, naturally, lies in her own origins—and the result is just as beautiful, and just as frustrating, as her fiction. At times, she conjures the lost working-class Northern English world she grew up in with such clarity you can see the pattern on the wallpaper, or the bleakness of the coal shed where Winterson was sometimes left to sleep. But when it comes to emotions, Winterson scurries and evades like the mice her adoptive mother used to claim were manifestations of spiritual ectoplasm ... Three-quarters of the way through the book, the action suddenly jumps ahead 25 years to 2007 and to the breakup of a relationship, the death of her adoptive father’s second wife, to Jeanette finding her adoption papers, and eventually descending into madness ... These passages are alarming and shockingly revealing—a woman who has looked after herself so effectively since she was 16 can barely manage the basic tasks of survival—but it’s so raw and undigested, it’s hard to take in and difficult to understand ... Never has anyone so outsized and exceptional struggled through such remembered pain to discover how intensely ordinary she was meant to be.
Winterson’s newest book is a searing and candid revelation of her life to date. More than an autobiography, it is a thoughtful rumination on all the things that make life worth living. From her hardscrabble upbringing to her fraught relationships with religion, sexuality and her rancorous adoptive mother; to the way the knowledge of her adoption has always haunted her, teaching her so little about love yet so much about loss; to the fundamental ways in which literature, poetry and words have saved and forged her, Winterson holds nothing back, no matter how painful.
Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson’s narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved ... A moving, honest look at life as an abused adopted child.
For anyone who has ever lost him or herself in a book or fallen in love with language, Winterson’s reflections on the importance of literature and reading will ring true ... This tale is not always easy to stomach, but it’s a good read on so many levels—Winterson is a detailed and likeable narrator; the descriptions of working-class Manchester, U.K. in the 1960s and early 1970s are forcefully drawn, as if with a blunt pencil in the hands of Mary Cassatt; and her search for her mother, the young girl who gave her child up at six weeks old, is intertwined with musings on love that most readers should find touching.
There are glimmers of happiness amidst the gloom, and her life, like her surroundings in the countryside of Lancashire, had a certain beauty – but it was a ‘difficult beauty’ ... Throughout this inspired work you are definitely rooting for the central ‘character’ of the young Jeanette, whose journey is confused, frustrating, tragic, but reflected upon with a genuine quality of honesty ... Read this as an investigation into the creation of an author – a 20th century Lancashire David Copperfield. Read it because it's a memoir of striking honesty, realism and wit. Read it because it is also the Romance of a life in pursuit of love.