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Book review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Every now and then a book jumps up and punches you deep in your gut. Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, the dark twin autobiography of the novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit did that to me, then it kicked me around in the dust for a while as I tried, winded, to get to my feet and recover my breath.

Compared to hers, my youth was easy. Her father worked ridiculous hours in the mines and on top of that, cycled six miles to work and back to save bus fare. Her bible-punching, gigantic, twisted celibate mom would lock her outside — or in the coal chute — when Jeanette was naughty.

This is in England, in a small town near Manchester, which must have been pretty hardcore in winter. Going to the loo must have been fun too, as the bogs was located at the bottom of the garden — and some families shared loos, too. Jeanette was adopted, and one of the first things the social worker does is inspect this loo to see if her parents are eligible adopters.

Manchester is where the spinning jenny was invented, and at one stage it produced 65% of the entire world’s cotton garments. This is where the industrial revolution began, along with unspeakable degradation of the environment and exploitation of the workforce; to counter that, it was also the birthplace of Marxism, women’s movements and a host of other human rights organisations. I never knew that shit.

The author had to create her own world among this bleak world and that of her mother’s. There were only six books, most of them religious, in her house, where happiness was priority zero. She first found alternative worlds in books, hanging out in the library for hours, then decided to create her own by becoming a writer herself. She has to work hard to find the few female authors, and the feminist authors speak to her particularly strongly. She discovers that she’s gay, leaves her home at age 16.

It’s her style that hit me hardest: direct, eloquent, insightful, articulate. I’m going to share just one little paragraph, about her finding solace in writing.

“Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination. I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed — that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other sides of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.”

Jeanette has to find out who her real parents are and why she was given away; there is this missing part of her life that, apparently, most adopted kids feel. It’s an arduous legal process that finally culminates in Jeanette finding her biological mother, but I don’t want to give away what happens then; I’ve already given away too much of the plot! Read it yourself.