‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson is a book that I have always felt I should really read and then never gotten around too. However as I have been preparing for this years Green Carnation Prize I thought it was time that I turned to some of the LGBT classics and so I picked it up and started to read… I simply couldn’t put the book down.
It is hard to decide if ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ is a memoir or a piece of fiction, not that the label should matter as it’s a corking read, so I think the best way is to say it’s a mixture of the two. We are told the story of Jeanette as a young girl growing up under the fierce some and ever watchful eye of ‘Mrs Winterson’ her highly religious mother who has already decided that her adoptive daughter will become a missionary. However the problem with that is two fold. Firstly her daughter, whilst having respect for the church, has a mind of her own and rather strong wills. Secondly, which we discover as we read on, her daughter is one who suffers from the ‘Unnatural Passions’ and falls in love with someone of the same sex.
Being Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel it would be easy to simply label this work as ‘writing what you know’ and yet it is so much more than that. The character of Mrs Winterson whilst being a retelling of her mother has a slight fairytale like ‘wicked stepmother’ to it. In fact as the book goes on Winterson inserts small tales starting ‘once upon a time…’ as we go on giving the whole book a slightly magical feel. Her domineering yet quiet tyranny over Jeanette’s childhood could have lead Jeanette to become a down trodden doormat. Instead a small fire sparks somewhere and we see a young girl both caught in conflict between religion and sexuality and also pushed on by it.
“I might have languished alone for the rest of the week, if Elsie hadn’t found out where I was, and started visiting me. My mother couldn’t come till the weekend, I knew that, because she was waiting for the plumber to check her fittings. Elsie came everyday, and told me jokes to make me smile and stories to make me feel better. She said stories helped you understand the world. When I felt better, she promised to show me the basics I needed to help her with numerology. A thrill of excitement ran through me because I knew my mother disapproved. She said it was too close to madness.”
I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did through the novel. This is no misery memoir, though of course its labelled fiction, and whilst in parts it is harrowing (I admit I was petrified of Mrs Winterson often, especially when she did things quietly) there is a lot of joy and hope in the novel. I found the fact Mrs Winterson changed the ending of ‘Jane Eyre’ for her own benefit very amusing and also sad at once as if she could do that there clearly was more to her than met the eye and maybe she just didn’t know how to show it.
‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ is not only a tale of ‘coming of age’, religion and sexuality. It’s a tale of the England and its prejudices and thoughts in the late sixties and early seventies. It wasn’t always as swinging as people might believe. It’s a book I am very pleased I finally took the time to read, and one that I would definitely urge others to read, if you haven’t already of course. 8.5/10
I am pleased to see that Winterson has quite the back catalogue to get through and so will have to read some more of her novels (I fortunately have a few on the TBR), any you would suggest as recommended reading? Have any of you read this yourselves? What’s the adaptation like?