Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world. Mrs Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin. There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control. When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold. When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken. Mrs Winterson would have preferred it if I had been silent.

Two years ago, I read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a book variously described as a memoir, an autobiography, a semi-autobiography, a complete fiction (here is an interesting article on that)… This book seeks to address that, in part, more autobiographical, filling in the gaps, correcting, switching, changing. I kept thinking, as I read it, that I would never trust myself to retrospectively write about my own life because I don’t think I could, even if I tried very hard, be entirely truthful (something that Jeanette addresses herself, here).

Far more than when I read Oranges, this brought back memories of the cold, grey week I spent in Accrington one Easter. A family friend’s mum was moving down to London to live with her, her house being sold, and we went up to help. The house was small and dark and cold, and when we went out, everyone stared at us. Towards the end, she says “I love the industrial north of England and I hate what has happened to it”, and this is very much true of Accrington: the mills are closed, the market dying – most people don’t mind going to the huge Tesco by the station now, instead of bartering at the market.

The story, layered over the truths and fictions of Oranges, and reads as though she wrote it end to end in one go, remembering and adding and clarifying as she went. It is incredibly moving, and uncomfortable, funny in the way that life is, no matter how bleak, and also incredibly sad, in the way that life is, retrospectively, when all the details are filled in. Ultimately, it is the story of many damaged and hurting people.

While the title is not an antonym as such, in this context the two seem fundamentally opposed. Certainly “normal” for Jeanette’s mother, who asks this, is “closeted, quiet, happy with their lot, no big ideas”, and that’s nothing like what Jeanette wants, feels she can have. She would rather be happy – or at least try to find happiness – than hemmed in.

Other categories that Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? fits into: a book by a female author, a nonfiction book, a book a friend recommended, a book based on a true story, a memoir, a book that made you cry

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