My real life book club read Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel and met to discuss it last night. When I think of all the years I longed to be part of a book club but couldn’t find one! Sometimes the universe just makes you wait for a good reason. I’m thoroughly enjoying this group of people – last night nine women and one man, and a marked tendency towards scientists. The poor lone male looked so disappointed when I arrived without Mister Litlove, who had graced the mini-meeting I’d had at my own house the week before. He longed for male company even more when the discussion slid off the rails and towards Fifty Shades and its ilk at the end of the evening. Nine women shrieking with laughter at the memory of all the dodgy books they’d read when young is perhaps not the most comfortable situation for a male witness. But if I was also sorry Mister Litlove wasn’t there, it was because he would have adored that part of the conversation. It’s reading a book to order that he can’t quite manage.
Still, Oranges! This completely divided the room, half loving it, half not getting it at all. Interestingly enough, the against camp had a tendency to like vampire stories and were curious to read Fifty Shades, which makes me convinced that you could create reading maps for different fictional tastes. Not that I am about to try that. Having read Winterson’s excellent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal just recently, it was interesting to see how very autobiographical this novel is. A coming-of-age story, the narrator is the adopted daughter of a fierce evangelical Christian, a woman whose tremendous strength of mind and purpose has crossed the fine line between zeal and zealot. Mrs Winterson is a magnificent creation, formidable, bullying, entrepreneurial, and completely bonkers. Jeanette loves her, when she is her mother’s thing, compliant with her religious worldview. But as she grows and is forced to enter the so-called real world, she realises how ill-equipped she is for normality. And the jolly if somewhat demented religious community she has felt secure and at home in, turns out to be unable to cope with the demands of an adolescent’s body, particularly when in Jeanette’s case, her desire develops for other women. Her mother, most of all, finds Jeanette’s sexuality impossible to accept, and so the great love Jeanette has held for her turns sour in the face of her mother’s utter inability to bend or compromise. It takes terrific force to turn away from a magnetic personality, particularly when the power belongs to a parent, and this novel charts what amounts to a spectacular fall from grace, for both mother and daughter.
So this is a book about a young woman who is radically different and distressingly unacceptable to both of the worlds she is forced to live in, the religious and the secular. It’s also about how hard and heart-breaking it is to be obliged to forge a new, unique path outside the cosy but constraining remit of belonging. What makes Oranges a special novel is the delightful humour that lightens every page. What could have been a dark and distressing story is told with such wry and entertaining bathos, as Jeanette relishes the juxtaposition of high-minded religious notions in a working class Northern town, a contradiction in which both sides look a little ludicrous and yet ultimately lovable, exemplified by the little notes Mrs Winterson leaves her husband on the kitchen table containing messages like ‘I am busy with the Lord in Wigan.’ Or Jeanette’s youthful belief that her mother’s dire warning about the two local newsagents’ ladies dealing in ‘unnatural passions’ meant that they put chemicals in their sweets. Whether or not you like Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is determined to some extent by your sense of humour. Certainly last night the readers who didn’t like it hadn’t found it funny. I don’t know how this could be possible, but then a sense of humour is a blinkering thing, impossible to put yourself in another’s shoes over it.
However, the novel is not just a comedy turn, as it has a decidedly literary ambition, too. Interpolated between scenes from Jeanette’s growing-up are various fragments of fairy tale, myth and legend, all of which reflect pertinently on her desires and fears as she grows. These part-stories are rewritten in a similar voice to the rest of the novel, and often feature stong or quirky female figures. I felt they worked well with the story as fairy tales and myths are mostly dramas of initiation and development, reinforcing the belief in our innate creativity and courage. An alternative reading of fairy tales is that they are designed to soothe parental fears about the damage we have inflicted on our children, equally apt given the monstrous but magnificent figure of Mrs Winterson and the complicated legacy with which she burdens Jeanette. And finally, these fragments offer an alternative form of parable to the religious stories that dominate Jeanette’s upbringing. For all that the religious community turns out to be something that she must walk away from for her sanity and her desire to be true to herself, the bible structures the novel, its chapters echoing the first eight chapters of the Old Testament. But more than that, the way the bible tells stories infuses the writing of the novel, its sparseness, its fascination with power, destiny, and dysfunctional families, its way of making meaning by telling a story that is actually about something quite other than its own elements. The bible as literature informs Winterson’s creative imagination, but in life as in writing, what she does with it is highly unusual, very personal and joyously innovative.
I first read this, oh about twenty years ago, and at the time, it blew me away. Reading it for a second time, I still enjoyed it thoroughly, but it felt a little more ragged than it did on that first occasion. I suppose I’ve read enough of Winterson’s later works to appreciate the refining of her talent (although after the early 90s I felt she steered dangerously close to pretention at times). But little that she has written subsequently has the boisterous humour of this book. However, if you really like vampire stories or Fifty Shades, it might not work for you.