Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 171 pages; 2001.
First published in 1985 by a precocious new writing talent — Jeanette Winterson was just 24 at the time — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is one of those books that you know you’ll get around to reading one day. Well, that one day came around for me last week although I’d had the book in my reading queue for a year or more.
Not having seen the BBC TV series of the same name, I knew surprisingly little about the storyline except that it had “something to do with lesbians”. Funny how your mind catalogues unread books by such crude generalisations, isn’t it?
Of course female homosexuality is one of the themes that runs through Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but it is far from the only theme. Religion, obsession, poverty and adoption are other subjects that are central to the storyline.
The main thread goes something like this. Poor young girl, Jeanette, is adopted by a Pentecostal couple — a quiet, largely absent father and a church-obsessed domineering mother — in Lancashire. From an early age Jeanette is indoctrinated into the religious life and plans to become a missionary when she leaves school. However, as a teenager she succumbs to “unnatural passions” and falls in love with another girl, scandalising the local community. Forced to endure exorcisms, she is eventually kicked out of home. She supports herself by selling ice-cream and working at a funeral parlour, all the while remaining true to herself.
This unique coming-of-age book — Winterson claims it is semi-autobiographical — won the 1985 Whitbread Award for a First Novel. I found the writing style strangely confident but very idiosyncratic, wavering as it does into fables and fairytales, but then returning to a more matter-of-fact refreshingly simple narrative. It’s a little too clever and a little too knowing in places, almost as if the author is showing off, and I found the leaps from one style to another slightly clunky and confusing.
I’m not ashamed to admit that getting a handle on the storyline stumped me. I couldn’t figure out the age of Jeanette, the main character and narrator, because she seems to jump in age without any sense of time having moved on. And nor could I determine the era in which the novel is set. It had the feel of the inter-war period, but given the story is based on Winterson’s own life, it must have been the 1970s.
I know many people regard Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as one of their all-time favourites, but I found it completely underwhelming. Given it hasn’t been out of print since it was published some 23 years ago, my opinion won’t make one iota of difference to its ongoing popularity, but I still can’t help feeling that it’s not as special as everyone makes it out to be. I’m sure someone out there will set me to rights though!