Updated on August 25, 2018
31. ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson
It’s a little difficult for me to review this book, partly because I read it in a single day nearly two months ago, and partly because Jeanette Winterson’s work is always so complex and philosophical that it’s tricky to pin down. Reading Oranges felt a bit like a fever dream: I remember it as a kaleidoscope of words and ideas that’s hard to describe.
Still, it’s my job to try, so here goes!
Oranges is a semi-autobiographical novel loosely based on Winterson’s own experiences growing up in a Lancashire town, in an extremely religious family, and discovering her own homosexuality. Many of Winterson’s works are autobiographical to some extent, but in Oranges the protagonist is called Jeanette and the setting is more ‘realistic’ than some of her other books (e.g. Weight). The style is experimental; in the fascinating Introduction (which provides background to how she came to write the book), Winterson writes, “In structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel.” Amazing, then, that she wrote it in just a matter of months, and that it was her debut novel. I don’t think it’s too strong to use the word ‘genius’ to describe Jeanette Winterson.
Winterson describes the structure of her book as a ‘spiral’. The story moves about in time and the anecdotes merge into each other, giving a mosaic-like picture of the protagonist’s life, rather than something more obviously linear. Oranges is also a commentary on storytelling itself: at points we leave the story of Jeanette and move into history, fairytale and myth. Still, throughout it all, Winterson uses sensual, vivid writing, immediately conjuring a feeling of place so that you rarely feel lost within the story (although I will admit that I did, at times, find it difficult to keep up with Winterson’s literary tricks).
“[Stories are] a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained … The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like a string full of knots.”
Religion is a powerful theme running throughout this book. Jeanette’s mother is deeply religious (all the chapters in Oranges are named after books of the Bible), and to the young Winterson religion is hugely important too. This helps to create a feeling of rising tension: how will coming out as gay affect her position in this deeply religious and conservative community? We read about Jeanette’s coming of age, discover her early lesbian romances, and learn about how she comes to terms with her own sexuality against a deeply homophobic upbringing. Oranges is surely a staple of queer fiction, and a must-read for those struggling to reconcile homosexuality and religion.
This is not an easy read. It is complex and rich and very rewarding. I didn’t always understand it, at times I felt like I was floundering, but nevertheless it is an important read, and I couldn’t put it down.
“It all seemed to hinge around the fact that I loved the wrong sort of people.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit here.
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