I picked up Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit after reading The Passion and falling in love with Jeanette Winterson’s writing style. I also fancied a nice short read after reading Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed (review to follow shortly). Did it turn out to be the special book I was hoping it would be? You’ll have to read on to find out!
A semi-autobiographical book published in 1985, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is the story of a young girl – Jeanette, growing up in an English Pentecostal community. Jeanette’s mother’s ambition (she is adopted) is that “She would get a child, train it, build it, dedicate it to the lord”. However when Jeanette discovers she desires another girl, the evangelical church members respond in a variety of ways to what they perceive as the threat of her developing homosexuality.
I would say that Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is a coming of age novel rather than a ‘book about lesbians’, as I had assumed (a vague notion picked up from the controversy around the BBC adaptation which was on TV when I was a child). While lesbianism is a theme, it is just one of the elements of a novel that shows a young person developing in an environment that is at odds with who they are becoming. It is also in many ways a commentary on religious zeal and both the positive and negative consequences of religious influence.
The novel is written in the first person so we share Jeanette’s experiences closely as she heads off to school (she has been home-schooled) encountering disapproval to her dogged evangelical mindset from teachers right through to her own attempts to reconcile her faith and her sexual feelings. We also are party to her thoughts as she considers her ambivalency towards men even from an early age and her response to the prophetic comment from a gypsy woman “You’ll never marry”. She begins to understand as she grows up, what her mother refers to as “unnatural passions” are not the chemicals that are added to sweets, but is the words that will be used to describe her desires as they are perceived by those around her. I found that the first-person style, was very touching. It is also used to create gently comic moments for example in the way that Jeanette as a child observes the church which are often very funny and quite tender. We see the strength and the will of those around her as positive things and their views as quirky. However the book becomes more serious as it develops, quirky views becoming controlling, exclusive and dangerous.
The book also contains Winterson’s distinctive storytelling style in fairytale passages where Jeanette conjures up characters such as Sir Percival, a sorcerer and a wise goose. These passages are intertwined with the main story and seem to be fantastical versions of the characters and obstacles that Jeanette faces. While I enjoyed this aspect, I have to admit that I didn’t always get where it was coming from, whereas in The Passion, I felt the magic and real elements were more effectively woven in. However, I think that this is because The Passion was written later, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit written when Winterson was only 24!
I really enjoyed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For a small book it packs in a huge amount, it’s easy to read, with light-hearted moments at the same time as delving into quite dark subject matter. It didn’t blow me away as much as The Passion, but I think that may have been because that was my first Winterson book, and such an unusual one. Perhaps Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was more subtle than I expected, however I think that this subtlety is it’s key and Winterson’s knack is in conveying the book’s serious messages without bludgeoning people with them. Further insight into her messages and ideas can found in the author introduction to the Vintage edition pictured above.
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a beautifully written book with a uniquely intimate perspective and concentrates on feelings much more than events. I can really sense that this was a story written by a young Winterson at the start of a brilliant career and while I think I may enjoy her later works even more, it is definitely a story that will stay with me and encourages me to read other books by her.
8 out of 10
Have you read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or seen the 80’s BBC TV series?