The first time I came across Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, was as a teenager in the early 90s. I stumbled upon the channel 4 tv adaptation, which Winterson also wrote the screen play for. It was totally out of my comfort zone, totally beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.
It was also certainly the first time I had come across a tv series with a lesbian relationship – this was back when same sex relationships were just beginning to enter mainstream entertainment. Fast forward a good 26 years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book itself, thanks to it being the July/August read for the Feminist Orchestra book club that I am part of on Goodreads (I can’t believe how long it has actually taken me to write a review and I’m really not sure how we’ve got to October already!)
Winterson used her own life as a base for this novel, later returning to this time in her life to write her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In the introduction of my copy (the one pictured) Winterson writes,
“The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own.”
The story is of Jeanette, as a child and then as a young woman, who is adopted by a zealous Pentacostal, deeply complex mother and a father, who pretty much fades into the background and is most noticeable for his absence. Against a Northern, working class setting, a bright and incredibly resilient Jeanette finds her way through her childhood and is relatively happy to settle into the role her controlling mother has shaped for her with the end goal of becoming a missionary. Then everything changes as she falls in love with a girl and in doing so she fundamentally challenges her relationship with her mother and the church.
I absolutely LOVED this book in so many ways…
The northern setting and memories of my own childhood: I grew up in The Midlands of the 80s and so Jeanette’s world felt like home to me; be it a description of her street or a reference to this larger than life period of time. Having grown up in what was a very poor part of Nottingham, I also really appreciated Winterson’s very genuine, honest and identifiable portrayal of the working class.
Jeanette’s observations of the world around her: Winterson’s writing style is an absorbing combination of humour, a really dry matter of factness and really dark moments, all intertwined with such skill. It felt like Jeanette of the book was talking to me, that the book was a conversation taking place and I really like this informal connection with the reader.
The incredibly complex character of her adopted mother and the often very difficult relationship she has with Jeanette. Love is probably not the right term to use for this but I certainly thought it was extremely well portrayed. Though some of the mother’s actions are described in a very matter of fact way, there is no doubt to the sadness and sheer neglect going on. Not only does her mother have no idea how to raise a child or how to connect with Jeannette, her own needs are always put first. This was difficult to read and also made me really appreciate Winterson’s honesty. Towards the end she describes her mother as enlightened and reactionary at the same time and this is it in a nutshell. On the one hand, she is very much in charge of her own life, following what she believes in, making the things she wants to happen a reality. On the other hand, she is incredibly prejudiced, sticks to the rules of the church without question and has an intense adverse reaction to Jeanette’s same sex relationship. There is so much more I could write about this relationship – I would love to have had this as a set text for A-Level English literature!
I love how little Jeanette is so fierce in what she believes and what she feels. She only goes to school once the education department forces her mother to send her, by which time she has experienced a very alternative, certainly not age appropriate version of homeschooling and is consequently incredibly isolated in the school environment, which is such a stark contrast. She seems alien to the children and the teachers don’t know how to handle this unique girl. Yet she put her point of view regardless: when she submits her needlework for a prize and is frowned upon by her teacher, Jeannette fiercely says, “Just because you can’t tell what it is , doesn’t mean it’s not what it is.” Her imagination is equally awesome; her re-imagination of Noah and the Whale at Sunday School is hilarious.
The running theme of what makes a relationship and what is expected of a girl in society. There is much talk of settling and making do. Whilst there are certain opportunities as a woman in the community, as I will mention later, everything is strictly confined, anything out of the “normal” faces a harsh backlash. There is also very little genuine love of any kind in the world Jeanette grows up in. When Jeannette fall in love with Melanie, the treatment of this relationship is horrendous and utterly heart-breaking. Having confided in her mother, she is physically locked up in the house so that the pastor can drive the demon out and her unnoticed glandular fever means much of that time is spent hallucinating. Her mother also arranges for Jeannette to be ‘held to account’ (read publicly shamed) for her sexual orientation at their church, where she is forced to stand up and repent or face being ostracised. A further attempt to destroy Jeanette’s identity is when her mother burns all her letters, cards and jottings, taking away any form of expression.
This is a book of fierce, resilient females. They are not always likeable, a lot of what they do is hard to get behind, but it is a book of women, who run their local church, run their families, their shops, their social circles. Men are few and far between, either absent in character or portrayed almost comically even when they try and assert their dominance (though often, their actions are not in themselves comical). There is such strength there to create a world they can navigate in challenging economic and political circumstances. Life was hard, their resilience strong.
Stories to make sense of the world: Jeanette tells fictional tales within the main narrative and these stories are a way to make sense of her world; it is a way for her to find her voice and the only way for her to break free of the many constraints she faces. These stories take a lot of thinking about and I still need to return and analyse a bit deeper – that is how rich they are. Some readers have questioned the need for these stories in the narrative, I think they add a whole other layer.
In one of the last stories, the protagonist Winnet knows she must find a boat to navigate a river, much like Jeanette needs to find her way out in the world regardless of the many challenges she faces. Winterson writes,
“No guarantee of a shore. Only a conviction that what she wanted could exist, if she dared to find it.”
I think this is what I will take away from Oranges more than anything else; that energy and need to write your own story, even if you are frightened and alone, even when the path is not linear and there is still darkness ahead, even if you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.