0134 | Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson


Context: read this in bits while watching Roy Keane equalise for Liverpool against Arsenal with the father-in-law.

On p161 out of the 176 pages of this novella, Winterton states “Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.” And ain’t that the truth. I haven’t read a novel so fuelled by vitriol for a long while. This was written out of pain, frustration, anger, hurt, angst, rebellion and a host of other jolly emotions. As such, it’s hard to come away with it feeling much positive.

The subject matter is difficult: religiously-fuelled sexual prejudice against lesbianism. The problem is that, like most books that try to counteract prejudice, the novel comes off just as prejudiced as those they are lambasting. Winterton is no exception and that, I feel, is the weakness of this novel if it was her intention to create empathy for her own and others’ situations.

The protagonist, tellingly named Jeanette, is one mixed up cookie. She’s got a dysfunctional mother who seems to be a member of the Worldwide Church of God, a now pretty much defunct cult popular in the mid-late 20th century which, ironically, my own aunt was involved in. Sounded pretty much like Winterton describes it too.

Men get short shrift in this book. Those that are allowed to exist are all dominating authority figures. Her father (commonly referred to as her mother’s husband) is virtually non-existent. And there isn’t a single male her own age in her social sphere. This is strangely skewed – dare I say sexist? This style was very reminiscent of Shields in Unless. It’s not hard to see why someone in such an emotionally unbalanced state is going to turn to whoever is around to get their emotional needs met and, combined with emergent sexuality in your teens, that is likely to have a sexual expression.

Anyway, to think that someone with such a mixed-up relational background would have their thinking on their sexuality straight (no pun intended) by their late teens is a bit wishful if you ask me. But Jeanette won’t hear anything of it. Sure, the ‘church’ deal with it heavy handedly with absolutely no understanding. But Jeanette, like many who encourage homosexual expression, fails to consider that just feeling that something is healthy doesn’t make it so and that, just like her own approach, the approach of the domineering church she is appalled by is way off target. And none of us can say with one breath that we love the Christian God and, with the next, insist on life being lived our own way.

No wonder life is a mess. No wonder she’s so bitter.

Winterton writes very well and she can create some great characters. She’s also a master (oops sorry!) mistress at metaphor and weaves in some erudite wisdom alongside her wit.

I’d recommend Christians reading it because it is a good example of how the novel as an art form has the power to bring us into the worlds and minds of those who probably give us a wide berth in real life. It’s also a good example of how NOT to relate as a Christian to someone in a similar situation. It’s one I’d like to read in a decade or so to see how I’ve changed.

Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father.

‘This is Kindly Light calling Manchester, come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light.’

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  1. An interesting review, and I think it is neat that even though you personally were of the opinion that much of the novel’s subject matter was skewed and/or sexist [perhaps misinformed, as well?] yet there were aspects of it which deserve a reading. Not knowing all that much about the author, I wonder how much of the thing is sort of veiled [or unveiled] autobiography. As you say, the protagonist is “Jeanette”. I get the sense, [from your review of it] that the novel reflects the idea that we are all very much a product of our upbringing and our surroundings. In many ways, we become adults viewing life through the rolled-up newspaper of our childhood experience[s]. To an extent, anyway.
    Some people seem to very much transcend these limitations, and others do not. This novel being an example of something written by the latter type of person?

  2. hi cip… yeah apparently it was heavily autobiographical. Interesting metaphor that newspaper one. I wonder if I’ve “transcended these limitations” in my own life? I believe I have or at least am somewhere towards the end of that journey but then what can I see from my own perspective. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what I ascribe the success of that process to 😉

    But that would explain the tone of the novel. There are a couple of others of hers on the 1001 list so I’ll probably read more in the future – wonder what I’ll see when I do…

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