Jeanette Winterson's novels have established her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most admired books of the past few decades, including her internationally bestselling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents that is now often required reading in contemporary fiction.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life's work to find happiness. It's a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin.
It is the story of how a painful past that Jeanette thought she'd written over and repainted rose to haunt her, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother.
Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belonging, for love, identity, home, and a mother.
The essence of Winterson's own tenuous life-story is mimicked in the structure of her memoir, a jumble of hazy pieces coalescing into a mind, a self. What felt unformed and gangly in the first half becomes svelt and athletic; what was meandering becomes as sure and steady as a freight train.... Winterson offers a reader much more than the satisfaction of voyeuristic curiosity that marks so many train-wreck memoirs; this is a memoir about how we deal with our lot in life. Not how we can endure it, but how we might meet it, how we begin a dialogue with it, how we become who we are when we are done being our past. (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).
Louisa Ermelino, O, the Oprah Magazine
To read Jeanette Winterson is to love her.... The fierce, curious, brilliant British writer is winningly candid in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?... [Winterson has] such a joy for life and love and language that she quickly becomes her very own one-woman band - one that, luckily for us, keeps playing on.
Donna Seaman, Booklist
Starred Review. Clarion, courageous, and vividly expressive, Winterson conducts a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self and liberating power of literature.
Library Journal, Therese Purcell Nielsen
Starred Review. Provides a vivid picture of the grotesque behaviors of the lunatic mother she refers to as 'Mrs. Winterson.' This is a detailed portrait of a life that saved itself. The hard work Winterson did to find her place in the world after growing up as an outsider's outsider is not exaggerated. We are lucky she survived to tell the tale.
Starred Review. Raw... A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir.
The Independent, Arifa Akbar
Compelling, in fact, perhaps even more so when compared to the fictionalized version written by Winterson as a twenty-five-year-old. Then, passion and anger seemed to burn off the page. ...Now comes [an] emotional excavation as a fifty-two-year-old looking back with a cooler, more forgiving eye. ...The specifics of [Winterson's] early abuse are vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for their familiarity. ...If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her.
The Guardian - Zoe Williams
There is much here that's impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one's sympathy, for everyone involved, so that the characters who are demons at the start - her adoptive mother but also, to a degree, her acquiescent adoptive father - emerge, by the end, as simply, catastrophically damaged. In the process of uncovering that, she painstakingly unpicks the damage they wreaked on her. The peace she makes with her adoptive family is, in this sense, more important and evocative than the more complicated and double-edged peace that comes with tracking down her birth mother.
The Times (UK) - John Burnside
Winterson's memoir is a brave and searingly honest account of how she reclaimed her childhood through the power of language... Rich in autobiographical detail, it is as wide and bold an experiment in the memoir form as any so far written. Indeed, one of the most daring - and riskiest - experiments this book pulls off is a sudden fast-forward from the world of the lonely, adopted child that we think we know from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, to the recent present where, in writing that is astonishingly naked and brave, Winterson reveals the legacy of that difficult childhood... Why Be Happy is proudly, and sometimes painfully honest. It is also, arguably, the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years, and, as such, it really should not be missed.
The Australian - Geordie Williamson
This is no narrative of victimhood, but one of gratitude. In its lugubrious humor, its striving to find virtue in unlikely places and in its willingness to try to understand the forces that damaged her mother, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? recalls a feminine version of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. ...Winterson lends all [her] fierce poetry, intelligence, and epigrammatic punch to [the] prose... Thrilling as the author may be in the denunciation of her mother, the tale as a whole foregrounds the woman's vulnerability; empathy keeps breaking through.
In a passage on suicide, Winterson remarks that "when natural gas was introduced in the 1960's, the British suicide rate fell by one-third." I thought that perhaps she was using some creative math for dramatic effect, but a little research revealed that she wasn't exaggerating at all. Here's a summary of the way things were in Great Britain before the introduction of natural gas, from the New York Times:
For generations, the people of Britain heated their homes and fueled their stoves with coal gas. While plentiful and cheap, coal-derived gas could also be deadly; in its unburned form, it released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This extreme toxicity also made it a preferred method of suicide. 'Sticking one's head in the oven' became so common in Britain that by the late 1950s it accounted for some 2,500 suicides a year, almost half the nation's total.
Starting in the 1960s, the fuel used to heat homes became cleaner...
Blood, Bones & Butter is an unflinching and lyrical work. Gabrielle Hamilton's story is told with uncommon honesty, grit, humor, and passion. By turns epic and intimate, it marks the debut of a tremendous literary talent.
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