I read Why Be Happy
immediately after rereading [b:Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit|15055|Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit|Jeanette Winterson|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1267717580s/15055.jpg|1411520] for the first time since I was nineteen. I remember going through a Winterson ‘phase’ when I was a student, and even today I love her essays, especially [b:Art and Lies|15044|Art and Lies|Jeanette Winterson|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388209344s/15044.jpg|897412], but my reaction to Oranges
was unexpectedly lukewarm. My reaction to this
book? I hated it, mostly, to the point of being the Ranting Buddy Reader (my sincere apologies, Alexa and Zanna!) The Bad and the Ugly:
1. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
reeks, to me, of intense pain and equally intense unforgiveness for Winterson’s late adoptive mother; I had a feeling it was unnecessarily perpetuating negative energy. Unlike in most memoirs (save for 'misery literature'), the filter here highlights trauma, which I was not aware of pre-reading. (Interestingly, Winterson is married to Susie Orbach, a known British psychotherapist/ psychoanalyst, writer and social critic. Who knows how I would have felt about my mother if I were nearing sixty and married to a psychotherapist/ psychoanalyst?)
But although I may believe in therapeutic writing, I don't believe in therapeutic publishing. I still cannot say whether publishing this book – when Winterson’s mother can no longer respond with a version of her own, or to present her own story of trauma – was necessary or simply fair. (Winterson mentions her mother's awful childhood, but it's neither researched or detailed.)
2. The book seems to be replete with pop psychology:
Sometimes a whole day went by before the punishment was meted out, and so crime and punishment seemed disconnected to me, and the punishment arbitrary and pointless....
[of her adoptive father]He was always a little boy, and I am upset that I didn’t look after him, upset that there are so many kids who never get looked after, and so they can’t grow up. They can get older, but they can’t grow up. That takes love.
But although these aspects of the book made me feel uncomfortable; I don't think this sentiment was universally shared by the readers when it came out - apparently, the response was quite positive.
3. Winterson is dramatic, and uses catchy phrases and somewhat manipulative rhetoric (short, incomplete sentences? parallelism? fabricated innocence?) And in case we didn't get how much Winterson's mother destroyed her as a person, here comes a quotation from Lillian - her father's new wife: ‘I blame Connie,’ she said. ‘They should have locked her up for what she did to you and your dad. (...)
So why the four-star rating? (The Good
4. I loved the ‘documentary’ aspect of the book – how Winterson wrote about the language and language changes, people’s customs and poverty:
There were plenty of kids who didn’t get fed properly.
We did get fed properly in the evening because we had an allotment, and our vegetables were good. I liked growing vegetables – I still do, and there is a quiet pleasure in it for me. We had hens, so got eggs, but with meat affordable only twice a week, we didn’t get enough protein. (...). In winter, the gas and electricity meters ran out on Thursdays too, and so the onions and potatoes weren’t quite boiled enough and we ate them in the dark of the paraffin lamp.
Everybody in the street was the same. Blackout Thursdays were common.
5. Before the end of the book, events take a Dickensian turn Winterson, quite literally, gets mad; she also finds, against the odds and the red tape, her birth mother
. And this worked for me, after the negativity of the major part of the book.
6. Chapter XV – “The Wound” – contains possibly the most beautiful quotation about pain/ suffering I have ever encountered.
There are so many wound stories:
Chiron, the centaur, halfman, halfhorse, is shot by a poisoned arrow tipped in the Hydra’s blood,and because he is immortal and cannot die, he must live forever in agony. But he uses the pain of the wound to heal others. The wound becomes its own salve.
Prometheus, firestealer from the gods, is punished with a daily wound: each morning an eagle perches on his hip and rips out his liver; each night the wound heals, only to be scored open the next day. I think of him, burned dark in the sun where he is chained to the Caucausian mountains, the
skin on his stomach as soft and pale as a little child’s.
The doubting disciple Thomas must put his hand into the spearwound in Jesus’ side, before he can accept that Jesus is who he says he is.
Gulliver, finishing his travels, is wounded by an arrow in the back of the knee as he leaves the country of the Houyhnhnms – the gentle and intelligent horses, far superior to humankind.
On his return home Gulliver prefers to live in his own stables, and the wound behind his knee never heals. It is the reminder of another life.
One of the most mysterious wounds is in the story of the Fisher King. The King is keeper of the Grail, and is sustained by it, but he has a wound that will not heal, and until it does heal, the kingdom cannot be united. Eventually Galahad comes and lays hands on the King. In other versions it is Perceval.
The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.
What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded ismarked out – literally and symbolically – by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.
Happy endings are only a pause. There are three kinds of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.
On the whole, while I cannot say I enjoyed reading it, it affected me far more than Oranges
, and gave me the opportunity to rethink my approach to the genre.
Review based on excerpts and thoughts recorded for 2015: The Year of Reading Women