This memoir was a great choice for my last LentBook of the year, although there’s nothing specifically religious or spiritual about it. In fact, a strict religious upbringing (in a Pentecostal church in the north of England) was one of the reasons why the author’s childhood was as narrow, restrictive and difficult as it obviously was. However, Winterson is a perceptive and thoughtful enough writer to do what far too many writers don’t or can’t do in writing about narrow religious worlds: she shows the richness, depth and joy of that world even as she shows why it was a world impossible for her to live in. She celebrates the fact that the church, so central to the lives of her adoptive parents, gave many working-class people the sense that their lives were part of something bigger and more important than the daily routine of work, and though she obviously doesn’t share the belief system, she laments the fact that many people’s lives are poorer because that sense of purpose has been removed with the decline of Christian churches in communities like the one where she grew up.
All that said, it’s pretty clear that Winterson’s adoptive mother was on the far-right-crazy side of conservative Christianity, and that a hellfire and brimstone religion was a natural match for her obsessive-compulsive personality — also that it was a bad match for Jeanette, a bright, rebellious girl who as a teenager fell in love with another girl and was kicked out of the house at sixteen. She went on to get an Oxford degree and become a critically acclaimed novelist — but she continued to be haunted, not just by her harsh upbringing but by the secret that lay behind it — the identity of her birth family.
Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? is a book about many things — adoption, abuse, mental illness, faith, doubt, the quest for love and family. Winterson first explored her background, and these themes, in her autobiographical first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which I haven’t read but now really want to. Some years later, she takes away the thin veneer of fiction and writes about the same characters and events directly, extending the story into her own midlife crisis and her search for her birth mother. Her honesty is raw, fair-minded and very appealing — while meeting her birth mother is obviously an important step, she doesn’t pretend it was the perfect happy ending, and while her (now long dead) adoptive mother was abusive and unkind, Winterson views her with compassion: as she says, “she may have been a monster, but she was my monster.” A rich, thought-provoking and very satisfying book.