Category Archives: Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - book reviewI 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.

My Rating:

8 out of 10

Have you read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or seen the 80’s BBC TV series?

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

Sarah, of A Devoted Reader recommended Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion to me when I was looking for books to read  in Venice (you can find my final choices here). I actually didn’t read it on holiday (I was a little ambitious with choosing five books to read on a long weekend!), and didn’t get round to reading it until recently. I think this was partly because I had the impression that it would be quite an ‘odd’ book and I wasn’t quite in the mood for odd books until recently. After reading The Castle of Otranto I thought it would have to work hard to be stranger than that!

And… The Passion is an unusual book, however having finished it I now want to read everything Jeanette Winterson has ever written. What an absolutely wonderful storyteller.

The Passion doesn’t really lend itself easily to a synopsis but I will try to give you a flavour of what it is about without giving the whole story away. It is a book made up of four parts and set during the Napoleonic Wars. In the first part of the story, we are introduced to Henri, a young man who has left his rural home in France to fight for Napoleon. In the second part, we meet the enigmatic Villanelle who is a Venetian boatman’s daughter. At night she dresses as a man and ventures into the seductive world of the Venice casinos.

The story is written in the first person in both instances which means the reader gets their unique perspectives. The reader travels with the characters over vast continents and share their thoughts and their passions.

Throughout the book, Winterson explores many different kinds of ‘passion’. First comes the violent and irrational passion of war-making, out of which she observes that victory is never ‘limited’, either because the loser of a battle will seek revenge or because the victor doesn’t know when to consolidate his gains, gambling even when he is in ‘profit’:

“Victors lose when they are tired of winning, the impulse to gamble the valuable, fabulous thing is too strong.”

Of course this idea of gambling and victory also applies to the passion between lovers whether requited or unrequited. I found Winterson’s discussion of love and passion beautiful and moving. She explores how passion can trap you in her leopard metaphor;

“You might reason that you can easily feed a leopard and that your garden is big enough, but you will know in your dreams at least that no leopard is ever satisfied with what it is given. After nine nights must come ten and every desperate meeting only leaves you desperate for another. There is never enough to eat, never enough garden for your love.”

She also shows the other side of the coin, how love can make a person free:

“To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free.”

The idea of passion is developed in so many places in the book even down to the simple pleasure of food, which is even more pronounced for the characters faced with hardship and a harsh environment. I really enjoyed how well this theme was explored and articulated.

Other things I loved in the book… the character of Villanelle. She is a strong woman, sometimes a saviour and also a whore. At times she is wildly feminine and at others androgynous. Her glorious red hair is an outward display of her passionate nature. Of course I relished the descriptions of Venice having fallen in love with it when I visited.

“This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day  and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you.”

“At midnight the bells ring out from every one of their churches and they have a hundred and seven at least. I have tried to count, but it is a living city and no one really knows what buildings are there from one day to the next.”

When I began reading The Passion I didn’t have a clue where it was going, but enjoyed the beautiful magical storytelling elements. I then felt rewarded with a tale that really fulfilled everything I could hope for in a real ‘story’. A fantastic piece of writing in more than one sense of the word.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read The Passion or any of Winterson’s other novels that you can recommend?