Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Published September 4th 2014 by Vintage (first published 1985), 224p
I was thinking about the title of this review when I realized that the essential description of the book is its own title. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit/ Portocalele nu sunt singurele fructe is a story about options and choices, a bildungsroman on a teenager’s becoming.
Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester and adopted by a Pentecostal family who raised her to become a missionary. The story in the novel is based on the author’s biography; actually the main character’s name is Jeanette.
Oranges is autobiographical in so much as I used my own life as the base of the story. There’s nothing unusual about that. The trick is to turn your life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own. Write what you know is reasonable advice. Read what you don’t know is better advice.
…the author says in the Introduction of the book.
As Julian Barnes once said, all novels are biographical, but in some novels people are real and in some they are not. As the author’s own feelings and experiences interfere with the narrative, it is almost impossible to eliminate them and create a story with no real base. In this case, Winterson experiences re-invention.
I suppose I have, in a way, gone on using my own name in everything I have written because I prefer to write in the First Person. I am I and I am Not-I. Understood? Part fact part fiction is what life is.
We all travel in our life remembering things, analyzing them, accepting or rejecting memories. Fiction becomes authors’ and readers’ catharsis; in a complicated process of introspection authors recreate the self, offering options and making sense of being human.
Janette was all her childhood under the influence of her dominant religious mother who had never had mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies. Their house was the house of the Lord and Jeanette was raised to become a servant. She began preaching when she was eight and the study of the Bible was her daily routine. When she asked her mother to teach her French she was strongly refused because a foreign language could have been her downfall.
When she lost her hearing her mother thought she was just full of spirit and it was another woman, Miss Jewsburry, a lesbian, that took her to hospital for surgery. Her mother brought her oranges and the Bible.
I thought of Jane Eyre, who faced many trials and was always brave.
It was fantasy and books that helped her find strength and fight for her freedom. She imagined herself in different stories and the Grail Legend became the fundamental.
The Grail Legend ends badly but not hopelessly. And I suppose that even tragedy as its most bleak contains an energetic core of hope, because as spectators we realize that nothing has to end the way it does. That it does end the way it does – and often badly – need not to be the final answer. Even those words ‘final’ and ‘answer’ are faulty. The human process is continuous. And dimensional. Answers happen as movement, not stasis. And doesn’t every fairy tale begin with a problem that is stuck?… Taking risks is essential. Any fairy tale will tell you that. (in Introduction)
After she met Elsie, on older woman who became her friend, Jeanette heard stories that helped her understand the world.
At school she was lonely and had real adjustment difficulties; children and teachers judged her beliefs and her mother offered no help. When Jeanette talked about Hell to little children and told stories about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned, she really upset her teachers although it wasn’t intentionally. Exposed and avoided, she could make no friends.
As a teenager, she developed feelings for a girl, Melanie, whom she met at the fish stall.
We read the Bible as usual, and then told each other how glad we were that the Lord had brought us together. She stroked my head for a long time, and then we hugged and it felt like drowning. Then I was frightened but couldn’t stop. There was something crawling in my belly. I had an octopus inside me.
She revealed her feeling for Melanie to her mother who would betray end expose her to the Pentecostal community and church. Her passion is found unhealthy and the Pastor would recommend exorcism. She had to repent her sins and was locked in her room for almost two days.
Thinking that her lesbian orientation and her belief in God could co-exist, Jeanette involved in a new relation with a girl named Katy. Contrary to her mother always offering oranges, Jeanette thought that there were other fruit too. In her transition to adulthood, fighting for her choices, she left home and moved to the city.
I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. … As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me.
I found it funny when I read that the novel was often stocked in the cookbooks section with the marmalade manuals because of its title. Then I agreed when the author said it is not a novel on lesbianism only. It is much complex. It is a book about love, expectations, needs, formation, religious excess and family. Sometimes I felt anger while reading the story, then I felt hope but I did understand Jeanette and I fully empathized with her.