I read ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ in 2012 and wrote a note on it for the group. That was not long after its publication and after a well publicized visit to Australia by the author. Much of what I said then remains true of this earlier book though with a softer edge, I thought.
The peculiarities of her writing voice can be traced back to her mother’s speech (including public voice) mixed with her grim yet homely Mancusian environment. There is a plainness of voice in this work that mirrors effectively a younger person’s view of their world. There has also to be a strong echo of the biblical material with which she was raised and that means reading and preaching the bible and signing hymns and songs. I found the references to ‘orange’ and pebbles at times irritatingly intrusive and possibly my only complaint against the writing. Winterson turns her biblical inheritance on its head by dividing her text into sections with the names of biblical books – all a bit sly and witty considering her content.
I am a little familiar with the world in which she was raised and can remember beach crusaders and camps seeking to fill in beach time for families on holidays. I am sure most parents thought that joining in the activities, song singing etc was harmless enough and I certainly thought so. Opposite my childhood home a local group built a Gospel Hall whose adherents were pretty fundamental in their dress, religious services and general behaviour. I often wondered what it would be like to be living inside such a group.
Winterson provides the answer with some extras. It is clear that many of the people living in the group were reasonably happy and well-adjusted mixed with the usual fundamentalist fear of the unknown and outside challenges. How they respond to these varies from those who supported Jeanette even to the point of their own imminent death and the utterly blinkered behaviour of her mother who seems to be only to happy for anything that creates redemption for herself and any others she meets. Yet she also displays either total disinterest or responses to what she sees as threatening her understanding rather than the well being of the other party – self obsessed.
On the whole, the Mother is presented as a dominating self-focused individual who is capable of all kinds of cruelty without seeming to be aware of the effect of her behaviour. Jeanette persists in the terms of the life with which she has been raised but the inevitable challenge of her growing intellect and awareness of her sexuality means that something is going to give. It is almost eerie to sense her growing struggle to develop and channel her self-awareness with so little external recognition – even her father is almost totally emotionally absent – perhaps his own way of dealing with his wife.
Finally, I found myself ruminating over the mother’s past lost love as a flash point for what she has turned to as a source of certainly and well-being. Sad