“My advice to anybody is: get born.”
If you’ve read anything by Jeanette Winterson, it was probably Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, a classic lesbian coming of age novel in the same vein as Rubyfruit Jungle, in which a small town girl has lots of sex with other small town girls, fights with her mom, and leaves home in triumph.
Oranges was one of those books I read the summer I was coming out and I remember hating it because I was a small town girl and I could not understand for the life of me how the main character was getting laid that much in a small town. I was jealous. I was skeptical.
I was right to be skeptical. Why Be Happy tells the truth about being young and closeted in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a little different.
I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels.
I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me.
Ah, there’s the small town girlhood I recognize.
Oranges was a somewhat autobiographical novel, as it turns out, and for the first half of the book, Jeanette Winterson gives a non-fictional retelling of that story. I find her non-fictional account much more compelling than the fictional one, maybe because Winterson is older when she tells this version, or maybe because this version is more truthful.
In Why Be Happy, Winterson is not afraid to bring you into the coal-hole with little Jeanette when she is locked in, or onto the doorstep when she is locked out.
[T]here is a character in Oranges called Testifying Elsie who looks after the little Jeanette and acts as a soft wall against the hurt(ling) force of Mother.
I wrote her in because I couldn’t bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way. When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend.
There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.
This book takes place in mid-20th century Northern England, a world before mass media culture, which felt very foreign to me with its corsets, outhouses, Prince Albert china, and meandering stories. Winterson does a lot to orient the reader in that world, and the brutality of working-class life there.
And yet it’s not all brutality; there’s a great deal of warmth and humor, even in the coal-hole.
So there was my mum at the piano singing ‘God Has Blotted them Out,’ and there was me in the coal-hole sining ‘Cheer Up Ye Saints of God.’
The trouble with adoption is that you never know what you are going to get.
Winterson doesn’t abandon her storytelling abilities just because she’s sticking to the facts, either. I had forgotten how much I love her prose.
She likes to tell a bit of the story, skips ahead, takes little side turns into fairy tales or psychological theory, and winds back again. After recounting her childhood, she brought me through her career successes and her romantic failures, her changes of scenery, and her search for her biological family.
Then, at the very end, she surprised me. She brought me back to the beginning.
The demented creature in me was a lost child. She was willing to be told a story. The grown-up me had to tell it to her.
This is what really made the book such a treat to read. Winterson isn’t just here to tell you how she got hurt; this time, she’s here to tell you how she healed. The final few chapters contain some of the best writing about trauma I have ever read.
“The lost furious vicious child living alone in the bottom bog wasn’t the creative Jeanette– she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life.
This misshapen murderous creature with its supernatural strength needs to be invited home– but on the right terms.
Maybe I read Oranges too late to appreciate it. By the time I picked it up, I was already 25 and I knew that the story does not really end with your triumphant departure from your small town, your homophobic church, or your hateful family. What I really needed to hear about was what comes next.
This is the most dangerous work you can do. It is like bomb disposal but you are the bomb. That’s the problem– the awful thing is you. It may be split off and living malevolently at the bottom of the garden, but it is sharing your blood and eating your food. Mess this up, and you will go down with the creature.
And– just to say– the creature loves a suicide. Death is part of the remit.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is about what comes next.