Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was British novelist Jeanette Winterson‘s ambitious debut, written when she was 26. The book won the 1985 Whitbread Prize for first fiction and is considered a seminal work in gay and lesbian literature although Winterson disagrees with this narrow view:
“It’s for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.”
~ Jeanette Winterson
A coming of age novel with a difference, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit explores the landscape of religious beliefs, sexual identity and where the two intersect. The protagonist of this semi-autobiographical work is Jeanette, a foundling adopted by Christian evangelists in the North of England and raised during the 1960s to become a missionary. Filled with passionate zeal for the Church and its teachings, she grows up comfortable in the world of church camps, prayer meetings and apocalyptic warnings. Then she turns 16 and her worlds collide when she discovers she is a lesbian.
In a world tightly bound by convention, it is terribly hard to define one’s own destiny in any terms other than those that are passed down. This is the conundrum that Winterson explores, probes and tosses back at us. She weaves together myth, metaphor and allegory skillfully to offer up a narrative that explores some of the central questions of identity and destination–and has fun while doing it.
The quest for sexual identity is a central theme but what makes it a compelling story is the careful development of Jeanette’s character. The author brings Jeanette to life–her seriousness and sincerity, compassion, intelligence and strong will–through different incidents and episodes insidiously woven into the story. Jeanette’s growth into self-awareness is depicted beautifully through the changing maturity of her thoughts and and an evolving use of language rather than any obvious markers in the narrative. Her struggle to define, deny, understand and accept herself is moving and persuasive and along the way Winterson asks some very pertinent questions:
What is it about intimacy that makes it so very disturbing?
Religious zeal is the other major theme that the book addresses. There are vivid descriptions of religious enthusiasm and strong religious themes run through the book. Each chapter of the book is named after an Old Testament title and the beginning of Jeanette’s journey is described in a way that almost likens her to Christ.
We stood on the hill and my mother said, “This world is full of sin.”
We stood on the hill and my mother said, “You can change the world.”
Winterson’s criticism of religious zealotry is chiefly contained in her depiction of Jeanette’s mother, a dour, mean-spirited woman who loves God and sees the world in terms of black and white.
My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t mater what. She was in the white corner and that was that. She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window. She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.
While Jeanette and her mother are lifelike and memorable, the other characters in the book are shadowy figures who exist on the fringes. We know Jeanette’s father, a man “who was never one to push himself”, only through Jeanette and her mother. Melanie with the “lovely cat-grey eyes” is Jeanette’s first lover and Elsie, her loyal friend exist purely in relation to Jeanette.
The book also explores other themes such as the nature of stories and of history, battling inner demons, and the meaning of home through the evocative fables interspersed with the story as well as Jeanette’s own ruminations.
Those used to sweeping sagas may find this difficult fare because the plot is fairly simple. The complexity lies in the many ideas that Winterson is grappling with and in the fundamental questions she asks rather than in clever twists to the story. But it’s an easy book to read once you allow Jeanette to draw you into her world; the language is poetic at times and playful at others; and there are many passages worth savouring or going back to. While many readers may not agree with the author’s thoughts on heterosexual love and her dark view of men, most will identify with her struggle for identity and recognition – because it is an universal one.