Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985, 171 pages, English) by Jeanette Winterson is not the first of her books I have read. I really loved her Powerbook, both for the beauty of the writing and for the thematic matters explored. I knew as soon as I finished that book that I wanted to read other works by Winterson. I loved her style and the intermingling of realistic narration with magical realism and folk tales.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is told in the first person by a late teenage female, Jeanette.
She is an adopted child being raised by very fundamentalist Christians. Her parents, especially her very religious mother, see the primary goal of life as to avoid sin. The primary sin appears to be sexual acts. Winterson does a marvelous job of conjuring up for us the hyper-binding atmosphere in which the central character is raised. The mother is literate, being a lover of the work of Charlotte Bronte and she has internalized much of the poetry of William Blake. She believes in a literal devil who might well be living across the street. Anyone who is not like her and anyone whose ideas are not like her faith is not simply misguided or mistaken but is to be seen as actively evil. The world is divided up into a small group of people destined to be saved and the rest to be dammed. It is a very closed and cramped world in which our protagonist has grown up. In this world the most evil thing there is seems to be sex. We get the impression the mother may have a bit of a past she is not telling her daughter all about. She does admit to a premarital encounter with a handsome semi-stranger. Somehow we feel the mother does not preach so much against the evils of sex because she hates it but because she likes it so much. The father in the work seems to have decided just to stay in the background for the sake of peace.
I think almost anyone who selects this novel to read among the many many 1000s of others they could have read will know in advance that it is a story about a young woman giving into and coming to cherish her sexual desire for other women. You know in advance pretty much what is coming and the very long build up to this some how increases our suspense in spite of that foreknowledge. The opening half of the book creates such an oppressive atmosphere that I am very much looking forward to something happening, anything really!. There is no sense of the pleasure of life in the upbringing of Jeanette (the central character bears the same first name as the author and apparently Winterson was raised in an atmosphere very like that described created in the book).
Near the opening of the book Jeanette asks her mother about two women who jointly own a paper shop. These women are old enough to have a husband but for some reason do not. When Jeanette asks her mother about these women she is told do not associate with them and above all do not get to know them.
There are numerous interludes in the book in the form almost of fairy tales or fables. These fables were simply delightful interludes to me and help illuminate the themes of the book. Part of the general theme of Winterson's work is how we create myths for ourselves to help us give meaning to the events in our life.
As we knew she would, Jeanette does have her first sexual encounters with another woman. No graphic details are given. It is as though the puritanical gloom of her raising has quite turned her from men and has left her with little real relish for sex in any form. She loves her female partners but we sense no deep passion in these opening encounters in her life. I do not wish to give out too many details as a lot of people will eventually read this book.
It is beautifully written. I in fact enjoyed the fables that were interludes more than the main narrative but I think that is just my quirk. I do think Powerbook a greater joy to read in terms of the wonderful prose of Winterson at her best. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit gives us a brilliant look at the atmosphere which some how turns Jeanette into an embodiment of the very thing her up-bringing is most against.
This book is one of my selections for the GLBT challenge. It's relevance there is obvious as it is, I think, a core text in that area. I also think it is a very good read for the Woman Unbound Challenge. It shows a woman moving away from the very binding atmosphere in which the protagonist was raised and turning to sexual partners that would be completely unacceptable in terms of the religion in which she was raised. I should note that I am not of the mind set that any novel where the author is a homosexual female (or male) should be counted as a GLBT read or as a novel appropriate for the Woman UnBound Challenge but Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a paradigmatic work for both these challenges.
Off the books I have reviewed there are three works of fiction that I think would be good choices for the GLBT Reading Challenge:
Quicksand by Junichiro Tanizaki -Japan-1928-this work actually has more of an open erotic element than Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit-If you read this book, I think you will find it hard to image it was written over 80 years ago.
February Flowers by Fan Wu-a coming of age story about two female university students in modern China
Hardboiled by Banana Yoshimoto-a novella concerning a woman's only gay relationship -Her novel Kitchen also touch on themes related to the challenge but it is not directly focus on related issues.
I also posted a review of a biography that is very relevant to the GLBT challenge-The Man Who Killed Rasputin: Prince Felix Youssoupov and the Murder That Helped Bring Down the Russian Empire by Greg King -Prince Felix in his personal preferences was gay but did marry and have children as part of a dynastic duty. This book purports to show the factors that caused his development and does have some interesting data on upper class gay brothels in Czarist Russian and early 19th century Japan.
This book is being read for these challenges
Simply British Challenge
Global Reading Challenge
Second Chance Challenge (read a second book by an author you have already read)
The Read Before I Die 2010 challenge