The coming-of-age story of Jess, the adopted daughter of a deeply religious woman, who grows up isolated and insulated in the north of England in the 1960's. Jess meets Melanie, and the two teenagers fall in love, greatly upsetting Jess's mother and her congregation.
In addition to Winterson's interweaving of Biblical and fairytale motifs, I was particularly interested in her use of Arthurian motifs. In checking her bio on her website, she states that one of the six books in the house in which she grew up was Malory's Morte Darthur. Of course, it's Perceval and the Grail Quest that pops up in her book, but she twists it in an interesting way. She does realize that it is the Grail quest that caused the disintegration of Camelot, and she seems to parallel her own quest with that of Perceval's -- so her childhood community is a kind of Camelot.....
In the Deuteronomy chapter -- I found the last two pages contrasting history and story , the collector of curios and the curious fairly revealing, if a bit jumbled.
The book has all the joys and perils of not only a coming-of-age story, but a true Kunstlerroman -- the artist is emerging.
The Book Description: Jeanette, the protagonist of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and the author's namesake, has issues--"unnatural" ones: her adopted mam thinks she's the Chosen one from God; she's beginning to fancy girls; and an orange demon keeps popping into her psyche. Already Jeanette Winterson's semi-autobiographical first novel is not your typical coming-of-age tale.
Brought up in a working-class Pentecostal family, up North, Jeanette follows the path her Mam has set for her. This involves Bible quizzes, a stint as a tambourine-playing Salvation Army officer and a future as a missionary in Africa, or some other "heathen state". When Jeanette starts going to school ("The Breeding Ground") and confides in her mother about her feelings for another girl ("Unnatural Passions"), she's swept up in a feverish frenzy for her tainted soul. Confused, angry and alone, Jeanette strikes out on her own path, that involves a funeral parlour and an ice-cream van. Mixed in with the so-called reality of Jeanette's existence growing up are unconventional fairy tales that transcend the everyday world, subverting the traditional preconceptions of the damsel in distress.
In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson knits a complicated picture of teenage angst through a series of layered narratives, incorporating and subverting fairytales and myths, to present a coherent whole, within which her stories can stand independently. Imaginative and mischievous, she is a born storyteller, teasing and taunting the reader to reconsider their worldview. --Nicola Perry
My Review: I was twenty-five when I read this for the first time, and now upon re-reading it at fifty-three, I am as impressed and more moved than I was even then.
No news to friends, I had a religious nut mother whose deeply insane reliance on a Manichaean gawd-versus-devil double bind system of understanding the universe screwed me up royally. Winterson, poor lambkin, had it even worse because her deeply insane mother was about as unloving as it's possible for a human being to be. There is nothing of tenderness in this rigid religiosifier.
I can't help myself, reading this in late middle years, from judging the mother more harshly than ever. To raise a child is hard, but to seek the job out by adopting and then to do it so harshly should be actionable. Not everyone should be a parent, and this old buster should not have been.
Winterson's writing is so low-key that it's easy to miss the felicities of expression and the sheer cliffs of peerless perception she scales:
There are many forms of love and affection, some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other's names. Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name.
But where was God now, with heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord overthrown? I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don't think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don't even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn't rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to find a bowl of soup.
Poignant. Also powerful.
If you've read the book at a younger age, revisit it as you would pay a call on your uncomfortably eccentric auntie. If you've never read the book, why ever not? Don't hesitate.
Winterson intersperses the story with tales of wizards, and knights, travellers, and searchers, all seemingly with the theme of lost, or not-yet-found, identity. This whole book is about Jeanette trying to find her own identity, to understand it, and to be able live it without the prejudices of almost all those around her. She is a girl becoming an adolescent with all those pressures, and the unreal life created by her fanatical mother, and coming to grips with her "passions". It is a story well-told with compassion, sensitivity, and humour.
The narrator, Jeanette (I assume that this novel is partially fictional and partially auto-biographical), grows up under the direction of her over-zealous christian mother, who shelters her from the rest of the (secular) world until the government forces her to send her daughter to school. Since Jeanette has spent her entire life in a community that eats, sleeps, and breathes the Holy Word of God, she does not fit in well with her schoolmates. However, as she grows older and begins to explore her sexuality, she finds that she dies not fit in with her family, either. What follows is a painful struggle, as she tries to make her church community understand what she is, and rid herself of her "sin."
I had expected her to somehow come to terms with herself by the end of the novel, but just as she is realizing that the family she grew up with will never change to accept her, the book ends without much to tie it together, and I felt let down, although I would still recommend the novel to anyone who was interested.
But that faint praise is hardly the whole story, as Oranges becomes by turn a work of anthropological realism about the depressed North and the fading evangelical England, and about the heroine (for such a quiet story, it says a lot that that's the appropriate term rather than just "protagonist") and her attempts to make sense of the church that expects great things of her (the "Society of the Lost"), the loving but strident and cruel and utterly unchangeable mother, and the Winterson-figure's self-reliance in the face of adversity as she discovers her burgeoning, not sexuality so much, but self. It's a self-reliance that she was granted by the God she no longer believes in--by the utter certainty that leaves its vestiges, like the oranges that pop up fruitfully in this book at the weirdest times, even when she's lost her religious life. Even when you turn away from something, the you that didn't turn away walks alongside you all the days of your life, as she notes, and in that sense the unlikeliest but undeniable touchstone for this is Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, similarly about stepping from an anachronism of invisible Truth into a full-colour world of clashing experiences, and then realizing that all you want to do is talk about how it was in that intimate infinite you can no longer visit.
And so, also, about the pain of growing up, and the wrongness of being able to deny that you're different and hang on to who you were. The so so characteristic fantasy allegories--Sir Perceval trying to reclaim dead Camelot, a quest for the old light and life that's now pathological. Winnet, the wandering girl, who is taken in and then cast out by a sorcerer and uses the magic he taught to be something he never dreamed of. The Prince who ruins the perfect in search of the flawless, breaching the skins of his advisors and his wise love and his magic talking goose and bathing the world in gore, a crimson flawlessness that's all bloody flaw. I will remember these.
The title--not just a silly pun; you don't need to stay, because there are other (strange) fruit to be tasted; you don't need to go, because those fruit aren't the only fruit either. You don't have to be what you have to be.
This sober thought, which strikes me as the hard ball of ruling truth that Winterson has delved into her past to find: "I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don't think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don't even know if God exists, but I know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible. I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn't rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to reveal a bowl of soup. As it is, I can't settle, I want someone who is fierce and who will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me."
There are times when I could almost reconcile myself with religion--meaning Christian religion as practiced in our secular Western world--and then I think about the dependency it creates. The walking wounded. It's almost worse than the intolerance, because it's not just something that people indulge to the degree that their constitution lets them--not just an excuse for the worst, in other words, but something that cripples the innocent. I admire Winterson for not letting that be the whole story, for recognizing that her upbringing brought her strengths too, and for being able to bring her pain forth and sit with it without letting it crush her fancy and delight.
It wouldn't have helped that I remember the BBC dramatisation of the 90s and Geraldine McEwan's memorable performance of the narrator's mother with her religious excess and obsession. I kept seeing this in my mind's eye instead of focusing more on the prose I was reading.
I got irritated by the intermittent storytelling sequences of princes and princesses etc, the products of the young narrator's imagination which just made me want to skip pages and I did.
The intermittent humour was good and so were the hypocrosies as they emerged but on the whole I was glad the novel was quite short.
Essentially I found this to be a sad read of immense loneliness; the narrator gave her early life to the church and to God and spent much of her spare time evangelising and preaching, yet when her sexuality was outed within the church and she refused to repent or to be considered demonised, she lost both her home and the family of the church.
A slight frustration for me with this type of book is not knowing where the autobiographical moves into fiction, but as a reader have we any right to know this distinction? I guess that's just plain old human nosiness.
26 years later, Winterson wrote a 'twin' to the book Why be happy when you when you could be normal? which is supposed to separate some of the original fact from fiction, and if the reviews are to be believed the real fact is supposed to be even bleaker than the fiction. But there again, I believe this book is only semi-autobiographical so who knows where the real truth lies.
I'm interested if anyone's read both, and if so how much duplication there is of the tale from Oranges are not the only fruit?
Anyway, I digress. Oranges are not the only fruit was well written, with good pace and well crafted characters (however real or otherwise). This book leaves you with so many questions about the author - how did she mentally deal with having a mother who so readily turned her back on her own child, and where did her relationship with God ultimately end up? It leaves you with that sense of wonder about how, behind closed doors, our friends and neighbours are leading a multitude of different kinds of lives, hidden away from view.
That Winterson went from fairly poor, sporadic education, with no family support, to a degree from Oxford and award-winning books and television spin-offs is the stuff of novels in itself, and to me therein lies the great success of this book. Despite everything, she's swum to the surface, and I am glad.
Having grown up in the same part of the world as Winterson, at much the same time (although in a slightly less extreme church), there's a lot I recognise in the people and their way of looking at the world. In particular, I remember that sense of a community run by and for strong, single-minded women, in which men (with a few honorary exceptions like ministers and doctors) existed as vague grey presences seen occasionally at breakfast and tea. Of course, that's also typical of a child's view of the world: Mothers are fearless in the fight against dirt, ungodliness, and nasty foreign notions; fathers are away at work. Winterson pushes this a bit further by bringing in the element of religious certainty. This is something you usually only see represented from the outside in literature (the obstinate, righteous parent and the liberal, doubting narrator), but here the narrator has the same rock-hard conviction of the rightness of her ideas and feelings as the mother does of her own. It's the irresistible force and the immovable object. Of course, the problem with this is that the toughness of her narrator rather undermines the argument Winterson seems to be putting forward about the destructive nature of the quest for perfection here on earth. Perhaps this is why the interposed narratives in mythical or fairy-tale style take over more and more of the story as we move towards the end: the narrator is an epic figure who can't be allowed to exhibit guilt or self-doubt, but her struggle has to be made interesting enough for the reader to persist with it.
It would be easy to paint her church as evil or renounce them completely, but Winterson gives them the dignity that a child brought up believing in something has, and still clearly struggles with her own love and faith when it has seemingly betrayed you. Her mother at one point revises history - paints her white roses red, and insists they grew that way - and Winterson's pang of betrayal echo that of her first love renouncing her feelings and the church's own belief that she is possessed and has been given too much power that should go to the men of the church.
Interspersed with parables, fairy tales, and passages that are evocative of so many fire-and-brimstone sermons, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a thoughtful, moving, insightful, and often very funny, coming-of-age story.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is filled with embedded narratives like the fairy tales. This novel, as Mikhail Bakhtin would say all novels are, is heteroglossic, different-tongued. Bakhtin reminds us that you can't separate the form from the content; the fairy tales aren't a sideshow or a diversion, they're part of the meaning of the text as much as the plot is. Everything in a novel refracts the intentions of the author. So why the fairy tales? We should remember that, as Jeanette/Winterson tells us, stories are "a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained" (93). Every story explains something and fails to explain something else; we all forget the aspects of the past that make us uncomfortable. So what can we do about this? As we're told (95), the world is a sandwich made up of other peoples stories, so you need to add your own mustard! Or, go even further, and make your own sandwiches.
Jeanette's mother never gets it. She only has one story. She reflects near the end of the novel, "After all… oranges are not the only fruit" (172), but this is in the context of her feeding a group of houseguests only pineapple! She's just substituted one universal story for another. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit argues that the world is heteroglossic, that everyone needs a different story, and the worst thing that you can do is fail to recognize that. Jeanette grows up and loses the simplicity of her old world, the one where oranges were the only fruit, but she gains a new world with new stories-- and yet the old stories remain there too. She can go back and see her mother, and Jeanette is different but the same, and her mother is different but the same.
We're always finding new stories and discarding old ones when they don’t work. Jeanette’s mother’s stories work for her, but Jeanette needs a different set of stories, and yet the old stories remain inside her. Our sandwiches need mustard. We need oranges and pineapples and many other fruits. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is filled with different stories because we all need to be filled with different stories if we're going to survive.
The story is told with a considerable amount of dry humor, and includes parallel storylines that resemble a fairy tale or mythology. I'm still trying to work out some of the symbolism, but saw the humor as the armor Jeanette wore in order to get through her days. These elements adds layers and depth to the work, and deliver an emotional impact that sneaks up on you.
As the first self, Winterson's inner child writes in crisp, awake language, and her sentiments are alive and charming with premature existential angst. She's funny and insightful, questioning the ways and whys of the world... until suddenly, she's caught up in it.
As the second self, she rails against the religious system in which she was reared that wants to purge from her the most sacred thing she believes she has: a unique way of falling in love... as she discovers that she loves the “wrong” gender (other women).
What's interesting to me about this second self is that it's regarded by most readers as holding the thematic core- “a young girl force-fed strict religious values discovers she's a lesbian and here's how she rebels.” No, rather, I see the accidental theme of the book being one of knowing one's authentic self from the very beginning and yet being systematically dismantled from without by the community and one's perception of god.
Regarding the supposed, intended theme: where is this true rebellion in the book? This rage against the system that wishes to assimilate her at a very high personal cost? In the second two thirds of the book, I saw little rebellion and little rage. Moreover, I saw a more profound constriction of the second self in the way that Winterson's tone changed dramatically at this point to resemble the speedy, monotone speakers who read the fine print at the end of commercial spots. Gone were the delicious, random minutiae of her life, gone were the funny moments, and gone seemed any semblance of the archetypal Magical Child self that she'd embodied so impeccably in the first act. In other words, Winterson tells you she's rebelling, but there's very little feeling of it shown in the writing. Most of the expression of conflict is the external conflict between her sexual identification and how the members of her community respond to it- and not the internal conflict I'd hoped to see between Winterson's newly found romantic and sexual spirit and her force-fed understanding of god. What seems especially “blasphemous” in Winterson's respect is that we learn next to nothing about the women that Winterson professes to love, as said characters remain flat and largely without description during the times that Winterson is supposedly in love with them. As her second self, Winterson almost lost me in the muck and mire she'd once lost herself in. I nearly stopped reading the book, but pressed on so that I could make a fair review.
When we reach Winterson's third self, we see that the old spirit of Winterson reemerges slightly (albeit with a morphed, adult spin). The true kicking and fighting Winterson child never really returns, however, much to my disappointment. The redeeming quality of this part is that I could feel Winterson's soul inhabiting the words again, like it did in the beginning... but in a sober, grown-up kind of way.
The grown-up version of Winterson randomly tosses medieval vignettes into the rest of the narrative. These mini reveries are probably geared to show the splintering dichotomy of Winterson's whole self- meaning that the only way she could continue to function in the real world was that she was left free to roam wherever she liked inside her own heart. However, during my journey through the book, I found the ever-increasing frequency of the shifts of “reality” to be jarring. I think the vignettes showed further disintegration, rather than strength, in the central character and served more to alienate me from her than to bring me to a closer understanding of her. Had Winterson intended the book to be about the disintegration of self, this conclusion would have been more forgivable, but it's quite obvious that she was hoping to capitalize on the duality of religion and sex... and ended up somewhere else.
Winterson is a prophet.
The author tells the story through Jeanette's eyes and builds a very strong character. As Jeanette ages, her voice changes: this isn't so much someone looking back on their life and sharing their story with you. It is someone sharing that story as it unfolds. And it works very well.
The novel is also filled with dreams, and fairy tales created by Jeanette as she tries to make sense of her own life. This original use of myths and dreams also works very well to create a strong story that is a treat to read.
Oranges are not the only fruit: we all have choices in our lives. Jeanette and her mother are strong characters who makes those difficult choices and accept the consequences of them.
Oranges is basically a beautifully written, powerful and wryly humorous coming-of-age novel, set against a backdrop of family conflict and religious abuse. To me, a child's indoctrination into any extreme religious group constitutes a form of abuse, but in this case the protagonist's relationship with another girl brought it sharply to the fore. The scene in which she is locked in her living room to starve before being pawed and prayed over to 'exorcise her demons' is just horrendous! From around halfway through there are also little stories, magical and poignant, inserted into the novel, which parallel the protagonist's journey towards freedom and acceptance, and reflect the way Winterson has always described retreating into her imagination during times of sadness or hardship.
It's not going to be a keeper for me, but I'm glad I finally read it and I'm REALLY looking forward to reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (the 'story behind the story') in 2013!
When I started feeling as though I had a better understanding of the characters in her frequent historical and mythological digressions than in the actual story, it made it hard to appreciate her writing. In all fairness, however, I suppose it's possible that this is merely a side effect of my own ambivalence towards matters of religion and faith, but truthfully, I felt like Winterson was just being a little too coy here. Artsy for the sake of being artsy. I feel like she can do better.
This novel had an interesting structure - each chapter was named from a book of the old testament, in order starting from Genesis. There were also two other stories being told within the main story of Jeanette - one about Sir Perceval as he searched for the holy grail and another about a young woman who became a wizard's apprentice.
A 1001 book, I thought it was well done.
There was nothing I could do but stare and stare at the whelks.
Whelks are strange and comforting."
The perfect mix of confusion and love. A narrative always just shy of disjointed, trailing thoughts that stumble along in all the right ways.