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Published 3rd May 2012
Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and other popular novels, occupies a somewhat paradoxical position in most people’s hearts. She is the literary equivalent of Marmite, and just like Marmite, I cannot decide whether I love or hate her. Winterson famously said she had ‘no interest in genres’ and that she would create ‘the best work in whatever medium.’ It’s this sort of attitude that makes her difficult to like, but one has to admire her bravery.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
was brave in terms of its boldness. Weaving fact (the protagonist takes the name of Jeanette), fiction and fairy tale it is, as Winterson (not known for her modesty) describes it ‘not like any other novel.’ The content is fairly shocking: the narrative follows Jeanette’s realisation that she is a lesbian and her zealously religious adopted mother’s intolerance towards this. Perhaps the greatest shock of all, however, is that Oranges works so well. It comes at you sideways, abandoning the linear narrative in favour of a freer structure. The power of Winterson’s writing is in her boldness, her unflinching creativity.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
is Oranges: the follow up, or the truth behind Oranges. Whilst Oranges was staunchly still fiction, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? sits in the slightly murkier genre of creative non-fiction (or memoir if you want to use a blanket term), leading me back to whether I love or hate Winterson. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is undeniably brilliant. It is exquisitely well written and brutally – sometimes heartbreakingly - honest. This is creative non-fiction at its best: fearless and unguarded. Winterson doesn’t make me like her very much, she’s arrogant, completely aware of her talents and admits to hitting her girlfriends. However, that’s the real success of the book. It’s courageous enough not to care what you think of the author. In short, if you hate Winterson, reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? probably won’t change your mind (although you’ll surely have to admire the tenacity of her writing) and if you love her, you’ll love this too because it’s oh so very good.
As for me? I’m still not sure. I don’t like Jeanette Winterson, but, my God, I admire her writing. And, to be honest, I think she’d agree that’s a pretty fair statement to make.