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The shocking, heart-breaking - and often very funny - true story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

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.


Unforgettable… It’s the best book I have ever read about the cost of growing up.

Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times

A searingly felt and expressed autobiography…Funny and profoundly hopeful – a tale of survival

Kate Hamer, Metro

This book is good, sensible, beautiful company… Try this

A.L. Kennedy, Week

Jeanette Winterson’s writing is poetic, emotive and beautiful

So Many Books So Little Time (blog)

Incredibly moving and full of Winterson’s characteristic wit.


A memoir of a childhood shot through with fire-and-brimstone parenting, resilience and survival. The disturbing portrait of her adoptive mother is balanced by Winterson’s crisp wit.

Juliet Nicolson, Week

Vivid, unpredictable, and sometimes mind-rattling memoir... This book... which had been funny enough to make me laugh out loud more times than is advisable on the No 12 bus - turns into something raw and unnerving

Julie Myerson, Observer

This is certainly the most moving book of Winterson's I have ever read... but it wriggles with humour... At one point I was crying so much I had tears in my ears. There is much here that is impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one's sympathy, for everyone involved

Zoe Williams, Guardian

In the 26 years since the publication of her highly acclaimed first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson has proved herself a writer of startling invention, originality and style. Her combination of the magical and the earthy, the rapturous and the matter-of-fact, is unique. It is a strange and felicitous gift, as if the best of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was combined with the best of Alan Bennett... This remarkable account is, among other things, a powerful argument for reading... This memoir is brave and beautiful, a testament to the forces of intelligence, heart and imagination. It is a marvellous book and generous one


Both inspiring and appalling, its cruellest details only made digestible by the restrained elegance of Winterson's prose

Independent on Sunday

An essential new book... she is a natural memoirist. The first half is a mature retelling of her masterwork, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit... The second half is a wry, urgent account of her hunt for her birth mother... Pressed on by the need for self discovery, the prose doesn't miss a beat... it feels risky and alive

Evening Standard

A dazzling autobiography, this is a love letter to literature as a means to survive


While Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is rich in autobiographical detail, it is a wide and bold an experiment in the memoir form as any so far written... in writing that is astonishingly naked and brave, Winterson reveals the legacy of that difficult and painful childhood... Much of this book is laugh-out-loud funny... Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is proudly, and sometimes painfully, honest.It is also, arguably, the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years and, as such, it should not be missed

John Burnside, The Times

It is clear from the first page of this shattering, brilliant memoir that the black humour of Oranges was there to disguise the true awfulness of her childhood. If things were bad in Winterson's fictional world, the reality was much, much worse... There is a sense at the end of this brave, funny, heartbreaking book that Winterson has somehow reconciled herself to her past... Her childhood was ghastly, as bad as Dickens's stint in the blacking factory, but it was also the crucible for her incendiary talent

Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times

Boasts everything that she does best: courage, ferocity and prose that soars

Julie Myerson, New Statesman, Books of the Year

In memoir, honesty matters more than anything but, when married with humour, wit and elan vital of Jeanette Winterson's [book], it is a transformative force

John Burnside, New Statesman, Books of the Year

The specifics of her early abuse is vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for its familiarity... If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her


Moved me deeply. [It] celebrates the redeeming power of the written word and is undercut with an irresistible humour born of residence in hardship

Juliet Nicholson, Evening Standard, Books of the Year

An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography

Mark Lawson, Guardian, Books of the Year

There is something darkly Dickensian in the urgency and energy of her character and quest, in the acute, abrupt style of her self-presentation and in the extreme characters who have informed her life

The Times

Funny and scary mixed together, in the manner of the Brothers Grimm, sharp as a knife, round as a child's eye

Daily Telegraph

Difficult, spirited, engaging... a resonant affirmation of the power of storytelling to make things better

Jane Shilling, Daily Mail

Moving, turbulent

Zoe Williams, Guardian

Shattering, brilliant memoir... Here childhood eas ghastly, as bad as Dickens's stint in the blacking factory, but it was also the crucible for her incendiary talent

Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times

Verbalyl dazzling, emotionally searing, compassionate and often hilarious memoir

Genevieve Fox, Daily Mail

Jeanette Winterson's new memoir appears to have been highly praised, rightly it seems to me, for its zest and candour and noted for a quality that some reviewers have seen as haste or even carelessness but which I see as her characteristic lively, pugnacious inventiveness.

Nicholas Murray, Bibliophilic Blogger

The prose is breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty and vigorous all at once. She defines the pursuit of happiness not as being content (which is "fleeting" and "a bit bovine"), but as the impulse to "swim upstream", the search for a meaningful life. This breathless, powerful book is that search.

Emily Strokes, Financial Times

Winterson is a bold author with a track record of writing imaginative transformation tales, and this is a work about the power of words, stories and books to give identity to a life that is in turns shocking, funny, warm and wise.

Tina Jackson, Metro

Engaging memoir.

Daily Telegraph

There clear-eyed, drily witty, searingly moving memoir.

Katie Owen, Telegraph

It does all that committed fans might hope... This is far funnier than the novel that made Winterson’s name... Brilliant book.

Catherine Nixey, The Times

An inspirational memoir written in beautiful exact prose that celebrates the wildness of the ordinary. Winterson’s understanding of who she is… is both appallingly funny and deeply moving. Essential reading for anyone with a snitch of an interest in writing

Rachel Joyce, The Times

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? burrowed deep and made me laugh and weep. This memoir has a great warmth and an intensity and honesty that is rare and the writing is exceptional

Jamie Byng, Herald

Winterson’s unconventional and winning memoir wrings humor from adversity as it describes her upbringing by a wildly deranged mother

New York Times

It is in laying the truth bare in this unflinchingly honest and gripping memoir that Winterson really seems to find self-acceptance, love and even happiness

Yvonne Cassidy, The Gloss

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Formats & editions

  • Paperback


    May 1, 2012


    240 pages

    RRP $19.99

    Online retailers

    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Dymocks
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • The Nile
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • EBook


    October 1, 2011

    Vintage Digital

    240 pages

    Online retailers

    • iBooks
    • Amazon Kindle
    • Booktopia
    • eBooks
    • Google Play
    • Kobo

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

Also by Jeanette Winterson

Christmas Days
The Gap of Time
Written On The Body
Art & Lies
The Daylight Gate
Stop What You're Doing And Read This!
The Passion
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
The Stone Gods
The Powerbook
The World And Other Places
Sexing The Cherry
Art Objects


Ned Kelly
Talking to My Daughter
LGB I'm A Ballerina!
Island Home
The Princess Diarist
Finding My Virginity
Rather His Own Man
Bon: The Last Highway
Rising Strong
There Is More
When Breath Becomes Air
The Break
Lion: A Long Way Home
The Dangerous Art of Blending In
Sticky Fingers
A Fortunate Life
The Undoing Project