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All the mythological fruits a reader might yearn for
on 2 January 2017
I came to Jeanette Winterson quite late, and have no idea what took me so long. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, her first book, is the fourth Winterson I've read in as many months.
It’s probably because, knowing the one-word ‘what is this book about?’ preconception subject matter of ‘Oranges’ I mistakenly assumed it was a book devoted to lesbian erotica. Or, perhaps as Winterson amusingly suggests in her prologue to my 2009 digitised edition or perhaps truthfully suggests – she is, after all clear to remind us she is a writer of fiction, of novels:
When Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was first published in 1985 it was often stocked in the cookbooks section with the marmalade manuals.” (from the Introduction)
As is known Jeanette Winterson had a harsh beginning. Adopted by an extraordinarily eccentric couple (particularly the dominating Mrs Winterson), fervent Pentacostalists, Mrs W’s life-plan for the adopted baby was to raise her to be a missionary. The extraordinary creative, imaginative, hugely intelligent child Jeanette turned out to be was never quite going to fit into classic missionary mode. Though close acquaintance with the Bible and the English Hymnals did bring her into early contact with a rich, lustrous, poetic language.
“Best of all, she had a collage of Noah’s Ark. It showed the two parent Noah’s leaning out looking at the flood while the other Noah’s tried to catch one of the rabbits. But for me, the delight was a detachable chimpanzee, made out of a Brillo pad,; at the end of my visit she let me play with it for five minutes. I had all kinds of variations, but usually I drowned it”
Sex was not really part of Mrs Winterson’s mission statement for the little girl, but when Jeanette showed herself to have, along with all her other qualities, a passionate nature that was challenge enough for Mrs W – who abjured sex. The fact that Jeanette’s passions were directed towards other women proved to be several steps too far.
“Deuteronomy had its drawbacks; it’s full of Abominations and Unmentionables. Whenever we read about a bastard, or someone with crushed testicles, my mother turned over the page and said ‘Leave that to the Lord,’ but when she’d gone I’d sneak a look. I was glad I didn’t have testicles. They sounded like intestines only on the outside, and the men in the Bible were always having them cut off and not be able to go to church. Horrid”
The facts of Jeanette’s life – of course subjectively experienced as well as observed by her writerly sense – are expressed in another book (wonderful) “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal”, Winterson’s autobiography.
THIS book, by contrast, though it uses ‘what she knows’ – herself, and her own life in this case, as springboard, is NOT autobiography, it is a novel, genre literary fiction, even though the central character is called ‘Jeanette’ and her mother is Mrs Winterson.
Winterson rather tartly (and quite probably correctly) wonders if, had she been a young man using his dysfunctional background as springboard, the critics would have been quicker to realise the work fiction, literary fiction, and indeed fiction where the novel’s form is being explored. It shouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to ascertain this as woven into the twentieth century Lancashire working class Pentecostal narrative, are various myths and legends, Arthurian, Grail, and the chapter titles are Old Testament biblical, and allude to the overall feel and flavour of particular books of the bible
“The priest has a book with the words set out. Old words, known words, words of power. Words that are always on the surface. Words for every occasion. The words work. They do what they’re supposed to do; comfort and discipline. The prophet has no book. The prophet is a voice that cries in the wilderness, full of sounds that do not always set into meaning. The prophets cry out because they are troubled by demons.”
The book is a journey towards individuation and authenticity : the Heroic Quest, that deep myth which underpins much literature. And literature itself provides many of the magical tools which help the hero – another version of Excalibur, in fact
Jeanette Winterson is a wonderful writer – inventive, rich in imagery, playful, dark, heart-breaking, shocking and more than a touch shamanic. And how she demonstrates this in her introduction:
“Reading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown. When I started to read seriously I was excited and comforted all at the same time. Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition……as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood…..it is the story (or the poem) that is understanding us
Books read us back to ourselves"
Yes. That was a hairs up on the back of the neck moment, for this reader.
Oranges works absolutely brilliantly as a fine, quirky, comedic page turning roman a clef, a girl’s journey to young woman. And is also something of depth and richness as well as brilliant sparkle