Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
I don’t know how I’ve managed to escape reading Winterson’s debut – I’ve read (and loved) her autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, (reviewed here), and I very much enjoyed the TV adaptation of this book with Geraldine McEwan playing the fearsome mother. I’ve read so much about the book over the years, it felt like a re-read! So, chosen for our Book Group’s ‘orange’ book, I was very happy to finally read the book itself.
It’s fair to say that if you have read Winterson’s memoir, that sense of déjà vu will be very strong, for there’s not much in the novel that didn’t happen to Jeanette in real life. The Vintage edition I read had a new introduction written by Winterson in 1991, and in it she says it is both autobiographical and not; after all, the girl in the novel is also called Jeanette.
The story is superficially simple – the coming of age story of an adopted girl brought up in an evangelical Lancashire family discovering her different sexuality – however there are layers to it. Winterson describes it as ‘spiral’ in style. Her writing is bold and straight-forward with a satisfying wordiness. Other than Jeanette, the key character is her adoptive mother, an evangelical Christian and would-be missionary. You can get some measure of her from the opening paragraphs:
Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.
The novel is structured in sections named for the first eight books in the bible, the Pentateuch + Joshua, Judges and Ruth. Winterson is clever in how the story spirals through some of the major themes of each book – from the family origins in Genesis, through having to go out to school in Exodus, through being judged in Judges and a feminist interpretation of Ruth. As for the oranges that Jeanette’s mother gives her, well they’re not apples!
I remember back in the mid 80s when word of mouth finally got Oranges the notice that it deserved, after a quiet first edition produced by an independent press, It won Winterson the Whitbread (now Costa) First Novel Award in 1985 and this sparky author was off – creating a rich body of work in the years since. The challenging narrative of Oranges was spoken of in similar tones to Iain Banks’s debut The Wasp Factory (reviewed here), which had been published the year before. Both are novels that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Some may be put off by the amount of religion in Oranges, but in order for the Jeanette of the novel to break free and find her own way, needs must; it didn’t bother me, I find novels that question blind faith and Old Testament thinking fascinating. A fantastic debut, I loved it. (10/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR.
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) Vintage paperback, 240 pages.
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