Six years ago I acquired a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, a hefty reference tome organized chronologically that provides short descriptions of literature from Aesop’s Fables (published 4 BCE) to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (published in 2005). Like a studious reader, I flipped through the text, marking off books I had read and checking out books I had never even heard of. One of the latter was Jeanette’s Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Yes, I admit it: I was completely unfamiliar with this book. I remember being intrigued by its bizarre title and subject matter, but for whatever reason the novel soon dropped off my radar.
It came roaring back earlier this year. It seems like Winterson has gotten a lot of play over the last several months in the various literary media outlets that I follow, and I decided to pick up her debut novel to see what all the hubbub was about. Little did I know that if you’re of a certain nationality (i.e. British) and of a certain generation, then you would have definitely heard of this book and would think it strange that others had not. When Oranges was first published in 1985, when Winterson was still in her mid twenties, it was a colossal bestseller and later turned into a successful TV miniseries. She stands alongside other contemporary authors who showed great precociousness in their twenties—think Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, among others—and was duly rewarded for it.
The kudos were well earned. Oranges is a powerful and touching portrait of love, family and religious extremity in rural England. It tells the very autobiographical story of “Jeanette” who is adopted as a baby and brought up by an ultra-fundamentalist Christian mother. The mother’s beliefs, with their concomitant superstitions, suspicions and value systems, permeate all aspects of their lives—it’s practically in the drinking water. And Jeanette spends a good portion of the novel blindly proselytizing this religion to others while still only a child. The novel’s actions are complicated by Jeanette’s discovery during adolescence that she is, in fact, a lesbian. And this awakening disrupts her entire world and puts her on a collision course with her family and her community.
The theme here, while slightly obvious, is worth stating: the nature of passion, and the hold it can have on us and the meaning it can bring to our lives. With unassuming yet artful prose, Winterson really gets under the hood of passion to explore what makes it work and how it can shape the sense we have of ourselves. Jeanette’s transformation over the course of the book is, in a wonderfully paradoxical way, made more believable because of the ardor she showed towards her mother’s beliefs.
This novel impresses on a number of fronts. I love the fact that the title—at first blush a cheeky reference to homosexuality—is not overplayed in the text itself. Indeed, oranges become a central trope throughout the book; but with a skill that belies her age at the time of writing, Winterson is able to work it in subtly, leaving enough gaps around the trope for us as readers to fill them in. I also love the way the story is structured: each section is named after a book of the bible, and even as Jeanette reaches the apex of her bildungsroman, it feels appropriate that her journey be framed within a religious context.
Overall, Oranges was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m happy report that Jeanette Winterson is back on my radar, and for good this time. I’m sure I’ll be back to read more of her novels in the years ahead.