Books

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal

In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents. The girl is supposed to grow up and be a missionary. Instead she falls in love with a woman. Disaster.

Written when Jeanette was only twenty-five, her novel went on to win the Whitbread First Novel award, become an international bestseller and inspire an award-winning BBC television adaptation.

Oranges was semi-autobiographical. Mrs Winterson, a thwarted giantess, loomed over that novel and its author’s life. When Jeanette finally left her home, at sixteen, because she was in love with a woman, Mrs Winterson asked her: why be happy when you could be normal?

This book is the story of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a tyrant in place of a mother, who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an northern industrial town now changed beyond recognition, part of a community now vanished; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how the painful past Jeanette Winterson thought she had written over and repainted returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother. It is also a book about other people’s stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life-raft which supports us when we are sinking.

Funny, acute, fierce and celebratory, this is a tough-minded search for belonging, for love, an identity, a home, and a mother.