‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ These are the words Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother said to her when she left home at the age of sixteen after falling in love with another woman. Her memoirs mostly recount her childhood growing up in working-class Accrington living with her adoptive Pentecostal parents and her later search for her birth parents. I used to think that no autobiography could be more bleak than Frank McCourt’s account of growing up in poverty in ‘Angela’s Ashes’ but Winterson’s description of her fearsome adoptive mother was particularly harrowing. To say her childhood was appalling is probably an understatement and yet she poignantly reflects on love and life without succumbing to self-indulgence. Her search for her birth mother is very moving and you will feel her frustration at the bureaucracy process coming off the page.
The book itself is only really a partial autobiography mostly focusing on the impact her childhood has had on her life and her writing. Although more or less chronological, it is still quite meandering and somehow unstructured in style with her sparse writing style adding to the feeling that it isn’t really a ‘complete’ story of her life. However, unlike a lot of autobiographies, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Happy’ doesn’t contain unnecessarily long passages about irrelevant events in Winterson’s life making it some ways more of a general reflection than a memoir.
Winterson’s first novel ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ was published in 1985 and is semi-autobiographical. I haven’t read it but would like to hunt down a copy now that I’ve read ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’ which is an honest, compelling and above all human account of love, life and loss.