I’m going to be honest here - I’ve never read a Jeanette Winterson book. But I certainly plan to now. I went to see her speak at the SWF last week on a recommendation from another Shearer’s staff member, and it was one of the most enjoyable writer’s talks I’ve been to.
I’m not often one to go see an author whose work I haven’t read, but I think Jeanette may actually have changed my whole approach to writers’ festivals. Usually, I feel a tightening in my chest as the event arrives and I can count the authors I’ve never even heard of, let alone read. Rather than relaxing into the program, I find myself frantically trying to calculate how many books I can read before the festival comes around. Never enough.
But I went along anyway, after quickly checking out her website so I wouldn’t be completely in the dark. For those of you who remain unconvinced, even after this blog, the first chapter of Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is online on Jeanette Winterson's site and if you're anything like me you'll be hooked from the first line to the end of the available chapter. And the same by Jeanette in person. Rather than the usual 'in conversation' that is the norm at these events Jeanette came storming out by herself and controlled the stage for the rest of the evening. She was simultaneously entertaining, intelligent and funny, a difficult trio at the best of times. Rarely have I seen an author so confortable in front of such a large group of people, and in the intimidating shell of the Opera House, no less.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is Jeanette's memoir that delves into her bizarre and painful upbringing as the adopted child of Pentecostal parents who kicked her out of home at the age of 16 when she fell in love with a woman. The title of this memoir is the devastating question her mother asked when Jeanette was walking out the door. And all of this came after years of strange and unusual abuse. But despite the dire seriousness implied by it's topic this memoir is described by a reviewer at the Times as 'Laugh-out-loud funny' and the Sunday Times as 'Brave, funny, heartbreaking'. Which is the same as her talk - somehow, through sheer theatricality and an ability to turn hardship into material Jeanette manages to leave you feeling uplifted, perhaps because of her evident success in escaping and forging her own life despite this upbringing. And thank god. This would be a very different type of book if its author appeared less well-adjusted and less like she was thoroughly enjoying herself.
Either way, she convinced me, and Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is waiting for me on my bedside table as I type. And even without reading more than I chapter I highly recommend you pick it up too.