Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Shelf Indulgence review

Why Be Happy . . . ? begins with a description of a mother: ‘A woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.’ One of the many surprises of this book, reviewed at Shelf Indulgence, is that it is not crime fiction – nor even a novel – but a memoir.

The ‘woman’ is Constance Winterson, Jeanette’s adoptive mother, a monstrous depressive who terrorized her husband and daughter; a desperately lonely woman who adopted a baby because she wanted a friend.

The cruelties perpetrated on Jeannette were outrageous, harrowing and appalling, yet Winterson’s memoir is bursting with humour. And there is unexpected kindness along the way, too: the kindly neighbour who buys her a bag of chips; the teacher who lets her stay, rent-free, in her attic when Constance kicks her out; the famous author who provides a place to write, and lifelong support and friendship. Winterson is erudite and earthy, angry and philosophical by turns; she draws on literature, fairy tales, folk lore and oral tradition to examine the complexities of life, and her difficulties with loving and being loved.

Winterson’s honesty is searing but never self-indulgent; there’s also playfulness here, a sage look back at a life lived to the full.  It is also a reflection on hope; a life spent, not being happy, but ‘in the pursuit of happiness’. It is the story of finding a way to love from a loveless childhood.

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