“The book is not a page turner. Rather, it is a set of evening teas with that friend who has had an astonishing life but will also not stop talking about herself,” writes Darsana Mohan.
In the future, if I am asked ‘What saved your life?’ I’d like to respond with ‘Jeanette Winterson helped.’ I’d also like to be the sort of person who is asked questions like that – figuratively of course, not after I’ve been trapped in a cave or something.
Why be Happy when you can be Normal? is a wonderful book that serves as part memoir, part life-affirmative nonfiction for the “troubled child”. Jeanette Winterson shot to fame in 1984 when she wrote Oranges are not the only Fruit about being adopted by deeply religious parents and recognizing her sexual identity. The book delves into how her mother tried to enforce an apocalyptic narrative of the world on to Jeanette who later, leaves home at 16 to be with her girlfriend. Oranges are not the only Fruit was written when the author was 24 and became an experimental semi-autobiographical account of her childhood and teenage years.
Why I mention her previous book is that it is a coming of age story. Why be Happy when you can be Normal is what happens after you’ve come of age and have to get on with it. It is a sagely measured memoir that is eager to make itself understood. The book owes its title to Mrs. Winterson, which is what the author calls her mother, who asks the question in response to Jeanette saying she is in love with a woman and is happy. A large part of the book is this- the debris of Mrs. Winterson’s action and rejection. Decades later, Jeanette is still hurt but not vengeful. She has made a life on her own terms and has created her own version of love and a home.
This book is not a page turner. Rather, it is a set of evening teas with that friend who has had an astonishing life but will also not stop talking about herself. Jeanette Winterson is reconstructing her life and asks us to relive love, heartbreak and its lessons through her eyes. We meet her puritanical mother, her benefactors, father and his second wife, her girlfriends and eventually her birth mother and family.
She routinely talks about time and its non linearity. Her narrative is deeply affected by this notion and travels back and forth between seminal events in her life. Time is a character in itself in this book, a spool of thread let loose.
It is oddly bittersweet to read Why be Happy when you can be Normal? because to identify with certain elements, it helps to have some semblance of what Jeanette means by knowing longing and not belonging. In the first few chapters, we learn about the coping mechanisms she deployed when she was in the thick of it. We learn about how her love for literature and poetry came about and how it became a stabilizing and rewarding force throughout her life. We are also given a peek into her mental health journey and a bit about her creative processes.
The last chapters of the book detail Jeanette Winterson’s attempts at finding her birth mother and reconciling with the sudden duality of her life. Throughout the book, she is searingly honest. She speaks of voter regret and past actions that could risk rendering her unlikable but ultimately, this chronicle begs for reconciliation from the reader and the author herself.
‘Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.’, Jeanette Winterson says of the books of her childhood. With that in mind, Why be Happy when you can be Normal? is a collection of messages, beautifully arranged. The loose threads tie themselves into overtly sentimental but fitting prose, extolling the beauty of love and feeling.
Darsana Mohan is a writer, poet and lover of tea. She enjoys long walks on the beach, ice creams at sunset and bowing down to our Alien Overlords.