‘So just you take care, what you think is the heart might well be another organ.’

Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

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.

That’s the opening paragraph to Oranges, and it’s one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in a long while. I knew as soon as I read it that I’d like this book; that I was in safe hands.

For some reason I’ve long had the impression that I wouldn’t like Winterson’s work. She’s one of those writers who has a long shadow beyond their fiction, with a public persona that can seem arrogant and offputting (Hensher and McCarthy also spring to mind on that front). I was wrong though, because I absolutely loved this book and I’ve already bought her second novel. Winterson can write, and what’s more she has that unusual knack of writing serious fiction which is also extremely funny.


Oranges is about a girl named Jeanette Winterson, growing up in Northern England as part of a small evangelical Christian church in which her mother is one of the most important local figures. That’s also the early story of Jeanette Winterson, the writer. Does that make it autobiography? No, it just means that like many writers Winterson drew on her own life. It’s a story, and in that sense whether it happened like this or not (or not at all) doesn’t affect its truth. As Winterson observes: “People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious.”

Jeanette’s mother divides the world into friends and enemies, and there aren’t many on the friends list. Chief of the enemies of course is the devil, but it also includes the next door neighbours, the godless generally, most of the world in fact. Her life revolves around her church, which gives her a permanent cause to fight for and an endless supply of foes to fight against.

The Missionary Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended upon it. If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection, and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. Her husband was an easy-going man, but I knew it depressed him. He would have cooked it himself but for my mother’s complete conviction that she was the only person in our house who would tell a saucepan from a piano. She was wrong, as far as we were concerned, but right as far as she was concerned, and really, that’s what mattered.

Jeanette of course is among the friends, a virgin birth (well, adopted, which is almost the same thing). As a child she grows up steeped in bible stories, myth and history commingled and inseparable. She views the world through the lens of religion:

Our house was almost at the top of a long, stretchy street. A flagged street with a cobbly road. When you climb to the top of the hill and look down you can see everything, just like Jesus on the pinnacle except it’s not very tempting.

It all works very well indeed, until the local council notices that Jeanette isn’t at school and requires her mother to make her attend (no home schooling in those days, thankfully). It’s the first exposure Jeanette has to worldviews beyond her mother’s.

‘And why, and this is perhaps more serious, do you terrorize, yes, terrorize, the other children?’ ‘I don’t,’ I protested. ‘Then can you tell me why I had Mrs Spencer and Mrs Sparrow here this morning telling me how their children have nightmares?’ ‘I have nightmares too.’ ‘That’s not the point. You have been talking about Hell to young minds.’ It was true. I couldn’t deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards. ‘I’m very sorry,’ I said, ‘I thought it was interesting.’ Mrs Vole and Miss shook their heads. ‘You’d better go,’ said Mrs Vole. ‘I shall be writing to your mother.’

Still, despite all these contradictions in her life (and whose life doesn’t have contradictions, however old they may be?) young Jeanette manages to balance her world at home with the wider world. To her church she’s a shining example, a young missionary with great promise. That’s what she wants, to grow up and one day take the Good Word out to the benighted peoples of the Earth. Unfortunately, not all contradictions can be reconciled. Jeanette falls in love, which might be manageable except that the person she falls in love with is another girl.

Oranges is sometimes described as a lesbian novel. Winterson doesn’t agree with that description, and she’s right not to. The key relationship here is not between Jeanette and the women she sleeps with as she grows into adulthood, it’s between Jeanette and her mother. This isn’t a coming out novel, it’s a novel about the gulf between parent and child as we come to realise that our parents may not, after all, be right about everything and definitely may not be right about us. (Well, that’s one of the things it’s about – no truly good novel is about just one thing.)

The problem Jeanette the character faces here isn’t an unusual one. She wants to be the child her mother wants, but who she is isn’t compatible with that. Here it’s because she loves the wrong people, but it could be too a child that realises they can’t face working in the family business; they want to marry outside their community or faith; they don’t want to be a doctor or concert pianist or whatever; there are so many ways parents can expect more from their children than just their happiness.

In part I actually found this quite a painful novel to read. It brought back a great many memories of my own childhood and adolescence; of trying to be someone I wasn’t and could never be. I was shy back then, terrible at sport and with no interest in it unlike my father’s side of the family who were (are) confident and naturally athletic. I was bookish, as were two of my grandparents but nobody else and the things that interested me were often so far from the interests of my family that we could barely talk to each other. I was transitional, born to a working class family but wanting more. None of this is unusual. As Winterson says: “Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.”

Winterson of course, the real Winterson, left home and went to Oxford and from there became a writer. Winterson in the fiction leaves town too, escaping but at times returning, as most of us do. Few of us, however much we may wish to escape from home, truly leave it behind forever. Few of us truly wish to, because however much we may fight with our parents, our family, we love them and they us and that remains true even as we may deplore each others lives.

There is much pain here. Some people think you can have your cake and eat it. The cake goes mouldy and they choke on what’s left. Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to think of you changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.

I talked above about the key relationship here being between Jeanette and her mother, and it’s that tension between expectation and love that it captures so well. To Jeanette’s mother Jeanette is unnatural, one of the Godless, damned for passions against God. Jeanette however comes to accept her nature, to be happy with who and what she is. Logically that must be a divide that cannot be bridged. How do you reconcile two such different perspectives?

Well, you don’t I suppose. Still, only in the saddest cases do parents and children remain permanently estranged. We make allowances, permit exceptions to our most vital beliefs, because the alternative would be to deny love. My maternal grandmother was a devout Catholic, in her later years she took to referring to the family as heathens for our lack of faith, but she wouldn’t have dreamt of rejecting us over so small a thing as god or the fate of our immortal souls.

I should add that Oranges is not as straightforward a novel as the (marvellous) tv adaptation of it would suggest. While most of the novel is told fairly straight, it dips from time to time into fable, stories which reflect the wider story but which introduce an element of myth into the mundane. It works, because it fits. Winterson, the real Winterson, is telling a story and there are more ways of telling a story than just saying what happened.

Oranges is a superbly written novel. I was never a lesbian growing up among Pentacostalists in the North of England but I found it resonant and unsettling for all that – it isn’t remotely limited to its own particularities. Winterson is adept at arresting turns of phrase, women with “shoulders bared and white like hard-boiled eggs”, “ripe plums of indignation”, but she’s not one of those writers who place one beautifully crafted sentence after another ending with a result that while beautiful is somehow sterile and cold. All that and she’s funny too. Frankly, I wish I’d started reading her sooner.


Filed under Winterson, Jeanette

28 responses to “‘So just you take care, what you think is the heart might well be another organ.’

  1. I’ve read a few novels by this author, and I liked this one quite a lot. You mention the film version too and I thought that was really well done.

  2. The TV mini-series is genuinely excellent. Really very good. I mentioned it mostly though as it wouldn’t lead you to expect the fabulous elements included here, and not all readers are comfortable with that books that include that kind of writing.

    Have you read The Passion? That’s my next by her.

  3. Great review. Makes me want to read it again. You’ll love The Passion. That is a masterpiece

  4. This seems an excellent read. I’ve seen her name quite often on blogs but not in book stores here.

    Are there heavy passages about religion? That tends to bore me.
    There’s nothing worse than living with very religious parents when you don’t share their belief. I had a friend in high school whose family was part of Jéhovah’s Witness church. She had bad acne and they wouldn’t let her get a proper treatment because it was against the rules. She couldn’t go out and she suffered from her difference. I wonder what became of her.

    Must be tough not to enjoy sport in a sportive family. The love of book is difficult to understand for people who have no interest in it. I just recently got a question about why I was reading Under the Volcano when I find it so difficult and when I’m so exhausted by work. What kind of pleasure could there be in that?

  5. Thanks Sam. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

    Emma, heavy passages no, very funny passages definitely.

    Tim Parks’ first novel covers similar territory, a boy growing up in an evangelical community. Curious how often those who believe themselves blessed can be so unforgiving of human frailty, the Jehovah’s are notoriously bad for that but they’re far from alone in it. Such cruelty in the name of sanctity.

    Talking of my family is in a way shorthand, as actually I have two (my parents divorced when I was two, so I have my mother’s side and my father’s side and they’re pretty distinct with few connections). My father’s side were sporty, and I think found my own utter disinterest simply bizarre. Both sides, with the exception of my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, found my reading a bit pointless. They would ask that question too, but how can one answer it? If you ask the question, the answer will of necessity be incomprehensible, like my father’s side of the family explaining why football matters to me. If you have to have it explained, you won’t understand the explanation.

    It is an excellent read, and this seemed a good place to start to me.

  6. This is utterly unrelated, so shouldn’t really be posted here, but there’s an Ismail Kadare review here: http://anenduringromantic.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/a-kind-of-poetical-galaxy-ismail-kadares-the-file-on-h/ which I’d urge people to read as it’s the first Kadare I read and he’s an exceptional writer and this is a very good review of this book. Stu, if you see this, did you review The File on H too?

  7. It goes on the wish list then.

    I’ll never understand the passion attached to 22 guys playing ball. So I can understand why someone doesn’t get why books are so fascinating.

  8. I always appreciate your reviews, Max, even though I doubt i can find time to take on any other book. Re books vs. sport – I’m on the books side, definitely! Fortunately, my mother and various other family influences were on the book side, too. I see no point whatsoever to most of the noted American sports – American football, basketball, even baseball. What we call soccer and you football also does nothing for me. However, about 15 years ago I developed a passion for ice hockey. Strange, you say? Yeah, undoubtedly!

  9. No I haven’t read the passion. I actually preferred the film version (mini series) of Oranges to the book to be honest. I didn’t care for the fantastic elements of the book, but the one led me to the other.

  10. leroyhunter

    Sounds great Max. I’m in the space you describe re Winterson, ie not interested in reading her but for no very good reason. The quotes are very impressive and whet my interest.
    I played a fair bit of sport when I was a kid (I was “handy”, but I disliked the hard work associated with fitness – not a recipe for a sporting career) and I’m still an avid spectator and discusser of a wide variety of sports. So the dichotomy between books and “all of that” never resonates for me. But the situation (a feeling of isolation from “the group” – family, school, community etc.) is a common one in some shape or form.

  11. Lorinda, actually, what’s strange is ice hockey is the only sport I’ve ever developed a passion for too. Haven’t seen it for a while though (UK based, it’s not on our tv as a rule) and I need to pick a new team, the Flames have been a bit disappointing for me.

    Guy, that’s why I was keen to mention those aspects. I figured some readers wouldn’t like them.

    Leroy, she’s actually an extremely good writer. Also, it’s a short book, so if you hate it at least you’re not hating it for days.

    There’s no necessary dichotomy between sport and books, absolutely not, my paternal grandfather loved reading and football and both passionately. If one doesn’t share a passion though it’s often inexplicable. Model railways for example, or planespotting, or football, or Modernism. If one’s not into any of these things they can seem utterly pointless, odd even. It’s actually why I tend to try not to look down on people with odd hobbies. Who am I to say my interest in modernist fiction is any more meritorious than whatever number is on the front of the 7.14 from Doncaster? If anything as Emma says what we should learn from the things we don’t understand that others love is why others might not understand the things we love.

  12. Excellent, I loved Winterson’s work when I read it in my early twenties but drifted away in the mid-1990s. Have been meaning to go back and re-assess my relationship with her recently. 🙂

  13. Max, I was astonished! You and I seem to have quite a bit in common! I didn’t think there was a single person in the UK who even knew what hockey was! Are there any professional leagues over there? My undergraduate college was a major hockey school, but I never got interested in the sport until they came up one goal short in overtime of winning the national championship in 1996. After that I got interested in professional hockey also. My team is the Avalanche, since I’m a Coloradoan. They are even with the Flames at the bottom of their division this year – too bad! (This isn’t the right venue to discuss this topic, either, but still I want to say, it’s nice to find a kindred spirit so far away!)

  14. Mel

    Love the opening line too!

  15. Love Winterson and love sport too. Only yesterday I was at the New Den with my wife to watch the FA Cup 1/4 final between Millwall and Blackburn. The only sports I don’t get are those were you sit on something (horses, cars etc), and ice hockey. I can’t see the puck and can’t skate. I just don’t have any parameters for it.

    I’ve enjoyed all I’ve read of Winterson’s, including the literary SF.

  16. Steve, buy or rent a copy of Slapshot. Brilliant 1970s Paul Newman film and the only sports movie I ever liked. Lorinda, have you seen it?

    Ice hockey is basically like Rollerball, but without the boring bits of the film between the matches. What’s not to like?

    Good to hear about the Winterson.

  17. If you think it’s a good movie, Max, it must be – I really trust your judgment! I’ll have to get a copy – I like DVDs on hand for evenings when I’m too bushed to do anything but stare at the TV. I like the speed of hockey – in contrast, the feet of soccer players appear to be glued to the ground!

  18. Jacqui (@jacquiwine)

    This sounds great, Max. I’ve never read any of Winterson’s books, but I remember the TV mini-series – truly excellent and disturbing. I have her memoir – Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – on the TBR pile, so I’ll try to bump it up the list.

  19. The TV show was great wasn’t it? This is in some ways quite different, the use of fairy story techniques for example, plus it’s in some ways much more sympathetic towards the mother. That was part of what I loved in it actually, that capturing of how people can be impossible, yet we still care for them.

    I have the memoir too, but want to read a few more of the novels first and put a little distance between it and this.

  20. jacquiwine

    Ah that’s Interesting, Max. Thanks. I’ve just bought ‘Oranges’ and am now thinking of picking it as my next choice for our book group (when my turn comes around). It certainly sounds as though there’s sufficient ‘meat’ in here to give rise to a rich discussion.

  21. Definitely, I think it’d be a fascinating book club book.

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  24. “People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious.” Love this … I always find myself at loggerheads with readers – and they are often historians who like to read fiction too – who need this separation. They don’t seem to understand that you read fiction to “believe” something different – to believe the heart, ethics, values etc.

    Anyhow, yes I loved this book too – came to it quite late also.

  25. Yes, but history too is a form of narrative, an imposition of story on what’s ultimately just a set of facts, subject to interpretation.

    That doesn’t mean one can simply ignore any difference of course, and I tend to dislike reportage which mingles fiction in to “enhance” the reporting, but it does mean there isn’t a single clean truth waiting out there to be found.

    On a somewhat different note, have you seen the Kurosawa movie Rashomon? If not you might like it.

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