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.