12 June, 2012

Winterson World (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson)

In 1985, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ was published, Jeanette Winterson’s admittedly ‘semi-autobiographical’ story, a masterpiece of a novel on innocence, childhood and homosexuality and since then, nobody has known just how much of ‘Oranges’ relates to Winterson’s own life, in a book that toes the line between fiction, life and meta-fiction. Until now.

‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ is put in the non-fiction shelves of the bookshop, but could happily be placed in almost any genre – it’s Winterson’s life, but told with her insightful and comedic tone. It reveals just how important a novel ‘Oranges’ is, and puts Winterson’s life in context to the legendary status now afforded to the ‘Oranges’ tale, from the novel’s generational success and the BBC TV adaptation.

Winterson’s writing elevates what is essentially quite a bleak tale of adolescence to quite dizzying heights of poetic beauty, intense meaning and wise connections. Her prose style comprises the traditional expectations of storytelling (references to fairytales and traditional story models) with her own fresh and individual voice. She perfectly conjures up a picture of bleak village life, but brings an aesthetic value to the scenes, and cross-references her tale with cultural references from that time, and from today. The book is less like reading a chronological list of things that happened in her life, and more a brilliantly realised collection of what Winterson’s life has meant to her, and how it manifests itself in her psyche, in forming the Winterson of the present day.

The book, like the writer, has a knack for the soundbite, for the succinct meaning to every word – ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it’. Every line, despite her writing being simplistic in lexis, is heavy with the weight of Winterson-world. Whilst careful with her words, Winterson does not leave out information (trust me, she does not hold back – some of the things included will shock you) and instead, makes sense, in literary terms, of what has happened to her. Whilst she may hide and disguise things that will happen, Winterson’s tale (arguably, like ‘Oranges’) is one representation of her story.

In a society that is placing less and less value on books, and in which libraries are facing unprecedented scrutiny and difficulty, Winterson champions books, libraries and culture as an important path away from bigotry, and as a nurturing force for children. Her book is scattered with literary references, and in particular, Winterson recounts how, despite books being banned from her childhood home, she would make her way through every book on the shelves of Fiction, alphabetically. Winterson writes that ‘A tough life needs tough language… That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is’. Winterson values culture – the cultural heritage of a village or town, of the country, and of oneself and one’s family. The unifying extent of her cultural references – from La Morte d’Arthur to Toy Story 3 and Harry Potter – emphasises the value of culture in any age, especially for children.

What is at once arresting about ‘Why be Happy?’ is that it reads, to an ‘Oranges’ enthusiast, like a story you know, familiar and yet different. I have said that both books are different depictions of one childhood; only Winterson will know how true each is to her past, but there are notable differences between the two. What is glossed over in Oranges, or is less weighty by its fictional nature, is the extent of the hardship that Winterson suffered. This book truly brings home the extent of isolation one can encounter in a society they don’t fit into, a feeling that I think is universally damaging to a child, regardless of the exact circumstance. And it is in this way that Winterson, a roaring success as an adult, makes at once the points that culture and literature is truly life-changing and essential, and that one should not regret one’s past or upbringing, as it makes us who we are today.

The differences in tone between ‘Oranges’ and ‘Why Be Happy?’ are slight. But the most obvious difference in that, with the benefit of hindsight, and the success that Oranges has brought her, Winterson shows a better and more mature understanding in this book – on her mother, she writes ‘I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me’. And without spoiling anything, Winterson tracks down her experiences, with and without her mother, to one powerful emotion. Not many writers can take such a varied and disparate set of ideas, and write a streamlined and succinct book, in such an entertaining fashion.

So, what else is there to say about the book? Read it. Winterson writes with a fierce comedy, a balanced outlook and similarly to ‘Oranges’, writes a book which is at turns uplifting, devastating, ambiguous and clearly empowered. Winterson is a tour-de-force, a testament to character, and in this ode to intelligence, heart and imagination, she shines. 

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