“Oranges are not the only fruit” was published when I was 20, and made into a TV programme 4 years later. I honestly can’t remember whether I saw the programme first and read the book or vice versa, but this one of the few occasions of book & TV adaptation working in perfect harmony. I loved both, and was hooked. Jeanette Winterson’s rites of passage story is so extraordinary that it sets her apart, and she remains one of my great inspirations. Winterson’s novels are always events for me, but, it all started with “Oranges” so I thought, as it reaches the silver anniversary of publication, it is time to honour a modern classic.
It is common for novelists to use their life experiences in their first novel. And the rites-of-passage story is so well used, it easily becomes hackneyed. “Oranges” avoids such pitfalls, for three reasons. First, the quality of Winterson’s writing raises the book high above any other in the genre. Second, it teems with fabulous characters, set in a world that is so well drawn, you can almost smell the factory smoke, and feel the wind in your face. And thirdly, Winterson intersperses her storytellings with her narrator’s imaginary stories, which are inventive, funny and act as a subtle comment on the action.
The novel tells the story of Jeanette, a young girl adopted by a zealous Evangelical mother, and put-upon father. But this is no ordinary adoption. Her mother has chosen her specially to be a child of God – a future missionary. As Jeanette grows up and begins to make sense of her world, she realises her mother’s fervent beliefs are somewhat unusual, and that she may not want to follow the path laid out for her. It is only as she enters her teens, and falls in love with Melanie, that she is understands that she will have to make a choice between the family of her church, and her own wishes and desires.
It is the nature of all good books that they draw us in from the outset and Winterson’s first paragraph is a corker, including one of my favourite lines, “My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.” which tells us all we need to know about both of them. From that moment we know we are in the hands of a skilful writer, who can move us from the comic (the mother’s pet hates, the “Sacrificial Lamb” that is eaten on Sundays) to the poignant (the description of the town as Jeanette and her mother walk up the hill) and the fantastical (Jeanette’s story of the princess and the moth), with consummate ease. Her writing is wonderfully fluid, weaving between Jeanette’s stories of people, the church, her mother’s religious rituals, to the conversations that perfectly pitch her character’s voices and quirks. By the end of the first chapter, we are already immersed in this world and want to find out more.
This is a book about women, and it is the female characters that stand out. Jeanette, herself, is a wonderful creation. Part innocence, and wide-eyed, we spot her rebellious streak from the first. In an early scene she uses the Biblical fuzzy felt to have Daniel being eaten by the lions, but has an immediate explanation for the grown up who notices. Going to school and being an obvious outsider, she is prone to being bullied, till she turns the table and scares her bullies rigid with threats of immersion in water after school. She’s a dreamer. Whenever things get difficult, she’s off in her vivid imagination – the life of snails on TV horrifies her mother, but Jeanette pictures the snail family at home worrying about their son not coming out of his shell; a tetrahedron becomes an emperor with many faces; a prince seeks the perfect wife, but is not happy with what he finds. She’s fiercely loyal to her mother, and struggles in the early part of the book, to understand why their religious beliefs are considered to be so outlandish by other people. But, as she grows up and begins to understand the wider world, and as she comes to realise her mother will never accept her true nature, she has to develop the strength to make a difficult choice.
Jeanette’s mother is a marvellous character. She spends much of the book being comic. The first page lists her enemies and friends – enemies include “slugs”, friends, “slug pellets”. She is “bitter” that the Virgin Mary “got their first”. She listens to the World Service each week to map the progress of Missionaries preaching to ludicrously described tribes. She is “Old Testament through and through” – quick to judge, to name the sinners, but not much given to believing in redemption. She’s a snob too. The family is working class but they don’t live at “Factory Bottom”, they would never buy cheap clothes from “Maxi Balls” where the poorest people go. At first, we laugh at her. Then, we realise her rigid religious beliefs are potentially destructive. When Jeanette goes deaf due to her adenoids, her mother ignores it for three months, thinking she is overcome with the Holy Spirit,. It is not until another grown up interferes that Jeanette is given the treatment that she needs. Later still, she is monstrous to her daughter, and yet Winterson always shows us that beneath the hard exterior, there is love and affection too.
Another strength of the novel is the sense of time and place. Winterson describes a world and a community that is long gone. An industrial northern town that in the 1960’s that is struggling with extreme poverty. Jeanette’s house doesn’t have a separate bedroom or outdoor toilet. The posh kids live on the Avenue and don’t have school dinners. Yet there are poorer people than Jeanette’s family, the Factory Bottoms community in the back to back houses. The community enjoy gipsy fairs but despise the gipsies. People still have to fight cockroaches and silver fishes. Raspberry ripple and sherry trifle are great treats. It’s a closed world that Jeanette will have to escape if she is to survive, yet there is tremendous warmth and community too.
Winterson is a genius at weaving religion and fantasy throughout the novel. Thus each section is given a title from the Old Testament, Genesis, describing her arrival in the family, Exodus, as she goes to school and so on. The stories of the bible permeate the text in the early sections and then as Jeanette turns away from her church, the absence is firmly felt. Each section of the story breaks off from time to time, into Jeanette’s fables that make sense of her life. A prince searches for the perfect princess, but does not recognise her when he finds her. A princess chooses not to fall in love and is punished for it. King Arthur’s Court is disrupted by the search for the Holy Grail. Jeanette dreams of marrying pigs and hallucinates about doing a deal with a demon. These digressions are written with a lightness of touch, and are a superb commentary on the main action. It is no surprise to find that many of Winterson’s later novels (particularly the fabulous “Gut Symmetries”) are clearly novels of ideas, and yet somehow have a strong narrative at their heart.
It is usual for a rites-of-passage book for the central character to make a startling revelation that enables them to grow up. In this novel, Jeanette has three. She finds out she is intelligent, and could go to university. She realises she doesn’t want to follow her mother’s path. And she discovers she is gay. Each one of these would be a strong story, but the three together entwine to make her journey both complex and deeply satisfying. Much has been made of the lesbian elements, but I’m inclined to agree with the author, love is love, and what’s most important here, is that Jeanette learns to be who she must be. That was a very satisfying and encouraging resolution for me as a young woman, and is why I thought it one of the finest pieces of feminist fiction around. Twenty five years later I still do.