A lot of readers in the UK will be familiar with Jeanette Winterson as a pundit on late-night review shows. Her Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is one of those signature books that follows its author around by prefixing any subsequent work with ‘by the author of’. This also makes it one of those books that sold enough to occasionally appear in secondhand bookshops. If you haven’t read it, it’s also among those books that you’ll regularly notice references to and have recommended to you by others.
The novel is a first-person account of a girl growing up in a Christian community while experiencing a growing sense that she doesn’t share her mother’s black and white worldview. The girl, Jeanette, is schooled at home until the local authorities send notification that she must attend a state school. Exposure to other children brings about a palpable sense of separateness between her outlook and theirs.
This separateness leads to a separation borne of expectations. Her mother’s expectation of her to become a missionary is one that is absorbed by Jeanette and her Christian peer-group. But this expectation is shattered as the young Jeanette discovers and explores her lesbian inclinations.
There’s a revealing podcast from the BBC (on iTunes, Bookclub, 4th April 2010) in which Winterson discussed her book with an audience. She is aversive to the idea that Oranges is an autobiographical work even though the novel draws on personal experience. She was surprised to find that readers assumed ‘Jeanette’ to be herself. Yet despite this, Winterson went on to repeatedly answer the audience’s questions about the novel and its characters by talking about her life.
And I couldn’t help but hear in her voice that same forthrightness and unshakeable confidence that I heard in Jeanette’s mother’s voice as I had grown to imagine it. This ambiguity is fun. Perhaps it’s why the portrayal of the mother figure has a mixture of anger and admiration? This mixture culminates in her showing small hints of change and adaptation towards her daughter towards the end. There is, in all the black and whiteness to the mother, just as there can be to religious interpretation, a literalism that, by nature, disavows the historical context and development that it’s a part of. The novel is arguably then about the ongoing unease that’s endemic to reconciliations. Unsurprisingly, this often makes for good comedy!
Oranges will appeal to anyone who lives in or has lived in a dogmatic environment while struggling with doubt. I’d assumed the situations described in the novel would be more cultish than I found them. It might take personal experience of a highly cut-off religious community to feel that cultishness deeply. But however deeply it’s felt, I can see how this book has endured. It touches on a widespread difficulty to belonging. This will probably ensure its return to secondhand shops for some time.
Extract from p.21
‘Why do you want me to go?’ I asked her the night before. ‘Because if you don’t go, I’ll have to go to prison.’ She picked up the knife. ‘How many slices do you want?’
‘Two,’ I said. ‘What’s going in them?’
‘Potted beef, and be thankful.’
‘But if you go to prison you’ll get out again. St Paul was always going to prison.’
‘I know that’ (she cut the bread firmly, so that only the tiniest squirt of potted beef oozed out) . . . ‘but the neighbours don’t. Eat this and be quiet.’
She pushed the plate in front of me. It looked horrible.
‘Why can’t we have chips?’
‘Because I haven’t time to make you chips. There’s my feet to soak, your vest to iron, and I haven’t touched all those requests for prayer. Besides, there’s no potatoes.’
I went into the living room, looking for something to do. In the kitchen I heard my mother switch on the radio.
‘And now,’ said a voice, ‘a programme about the family life of snails.’
My mother shrieked.
‘Did you hear that?’ she demanded, and poked her head round the kitchen door. ‘The family life of snails, it’s an Abomination, it’s like saying we come from monkeys.’
I thought about it. Mr and Mrs Snail at home on a wet Wednesday night; Mr Snail dozing quietly, Mrs Snail reading a book about difficult children. ‘I’m so worried doctor. He’s so quiet, won’t come out of his shell.’
‘No mum,’ I replied, ‘it’s not like that at all.’
But she wasn’t listening. She had gone back into the kitchen, and I could hear her muttering to herself against the static as she fiddled for the World Service. I went after her. ‘The Devil’s in the world, but not in this house,’ she said, and fixed her gaze on the picture of the Lord hung above the oven. It was a watercolour about nine inches square, painted by Pastor Spratt for my mother, before he left with his Glory Crusade for Wigan and Africa.