Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is an amazing book, comic and tragic, heartfelt and inspiring. It is the portrait of two mothers, told through Jeanette’s experience of them in her life, what they did for her and what they did not do. I highly recommend that you read this on audiobook as it is read by the author and you get all the accents and inflections of the extraordinary characters that shaped her life.
The first part of the book is about Mrs Winterson, Jeanette’s adopted mother, who raised her until she disowned and threw her out the family home at 16 for being gay. Mrs Winterson is clearly a mentally ill woman, who channels her ecstatics, her delusions, her paranoia, her cruelty, her need for complete control, her manic episodes, her disgust at the body and sex, and her deep depression into the only way for her to make her madness socially acceptable – religion. It was good to have read The Ocean at the End of the Lane just before this, a book in which the extravagantly magic is hidden in the everyday domestic lives of a home of working class women, because it is easy to see why that is the form of modern English folk magic when you read Why Be Happy – here is a working class Northern family whose lives are infused with spirituality and mysticism, where the Archangel Gabriel and the apocalypse is as real as the cupboard under the stairs where they will all wait out the reckoning until Jesus comes to claim them for his own. Talk about magical realism.
Mrs. Winterson looms large in Jeanette’s life – and it seems the life of everyone who knew her. She was a tyrant, a bully; she demanded complete obedience in thought and deed; she subjected them all to the hurricane of her tempers; she abused her daughter emotionally, mentally and physically; she arranged for Jeanette to go through an exorcism to rid her of her lesbianism where one of the Church Elders tried to sexually assault her; she locked Jeanette in coal bins, out on doorsteps, out of the house; she abandoned her and told her that she was unwanted and unloved by both herself and the mother who had given her up for adoption. She looms like a behemoth over Jeanette’s life, casting a long and dark shadow. Yet, Jeanette tells the stories of her childhood with laughter, warmth, love, even while admitting how badly it hurt and how sad it was. The organised chaos in which she lived with Mrs. Winterson was one that was absurd and ludicrous, laughable, and it was laughing at it that helped Jeanette to survive it. But she also faces unflinchingly the moments of real hurt and abandonment, stories of abuse so cruel and vindicative you just want to reach through the book and time and take the child Jeanette up in your coat, keep her warm wrapped up next to you.
The other mother – the birth mother of Jeanette – is painted in negative space throughout the book. Her portrait is a portrait of absence and of loss, a nameless loss since she was too young to even understand who or what she was losing, what she calls in its impotent inarticulateness “the lost loss”. Into this absence is heaped so many feelings of being unwanted and inadequate, ironically feelings that have much more to do with her relationship to Mrs. Winterson than they are based in any evidence of this birthing woman. Mrs. Winterson tells her nothing about her origins, and then tells her lies, uses her circumstance of birth to prove what a bad child she is, how she is a curse on not one, but two, families. So the portrait of the other mother is one so clouded and so absent that it develops through the book as a mist lifting, as Jeanette deals with her issues with Mrs. Winterson, as she starts the search to find any details she can about her birth, and finally the reality of this other mother.
This book is also the story of a woman saved by books, first other peoples, then her own.
“I read “This is one moment, but know that another shall pierce you with a sudden, painful joy.” I started to cry . . . So I took the book outside and read it all the way through sitting on the steps in the usual Northern gale. The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family – the first one was not my fault, but all adopted children blame themselves, and the second failure was definitely my fault. I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straight forward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, how to do my A-levels. I had no one to help me. But T. S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it’s irrelevant, or any of the strange or stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy.”
As I said of the last book I read, in a world where it is hard to make real connections with others, books can give you strength by letting you know you are not alone. All the more in this case, with Jeanette locked out in coal bin, Jeanette forbidden to read anything other than the Bible, forbidden to find out anything about people like herself or have her feelings and difference acknowledged. She clings to literature like a lifeline, and it takes her to safety, moors her and gives her purpose. And she can build a life around making her own literature, work through all that pain and abuse and turn it into something beautiful, and true, and about love. Her courage to even try is incredible, her talent and achievement are an inspiration.