WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? By Jeanette Winterson. Grove. 230 pages. $25.
“Part fact, part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story,” writes Jeanette Winterson in her memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?”
Winterson first told the “cover story” of her childhood in a swashbuckling, gutsy first novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” which won the Whitbread First Novel award and went on to be adapted for television and to become one of the BBC’s all-time favorite productions.
“Why Be Happy” is an autobiography in two parts: the first half reprises the material of “Oranges” while the second leaps ahead 25 years to a time when Winterson lost her bearings and “went mad” temporarily.
Part of the story Winterson tells in “Oranges” is that childhood can be overcome and left behind. Her perspective is different in “Why Be Happy.” Now she believes that “happy endings are only a pause,” that wounds don’t heal and that there are only three true endings: “Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness.”
What a treasure chest of material Winterson fell into when she was adopted by the Winterson family. There she found ample opportunities for revenge, tragedy and forgiveness.
Mrs. Winterson was a “flamboyant depressive” who kept a revolver in the duster drawer and bullets in a tin of Pledge. Winterson writes of her: “Mrs. Winterson was too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf.”
Winterson is a vivid, funny storyteller who revives not only her out-of-scale mother but the whole lost world of post-war Industrial England.
Rescued by talent and saved by books, Winterson escaped her adoptive world. “Why Be Happy” is full of the romance of language.
From her mother’s dramatic nightly Bible readings to her own discovery of T.S. Eliot, Winterson was at home with words. “I knew how words worked in the way that some boys knew how engines worked,” she writes.
Fast forward 25 years to a midlife breakdown. Winterson wakes to find herself on all fours, sweating and crying “Mother.”
The last portion of the book follows her two-way track back to sanity — first, as she forces herself to write a young-adult book and, second, as she searches for her birth mother.
Winterson tells a blistering story that doesn’t resolve itself into a happy — or an unhappy — ending. It’s not giving anything away to say that she always had foreseen her own loneliness.
On the last page of “Oranges,” Winterson writes, “Families are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes, an English instructor at the College of Charleston