Sometimes when you read a book you don't know whether to laugh or cry. It is just so with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, even now decades after I first read the novel.
Jeanette is the main character. That's also Winterson's first name, so there is a reasonable assumption that the novel is broadly autobiographical. The Jeanette of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is growing up in a working class Northern family, living in poverty. She is trying to come to terms with her sexual identity as a lesbian.
Jeanette is also struggling with her mother's mental illness and obsessive Christian faith, and her father's equally damaging emotional unavailability that manifests itself partly in an inability to intervene and help Jeanette or her mother. These home factors lead Jeanette into multiple improbable scenarios as she grows up and finally escapes to university.
Even though the basic story mirrors Jeanette Winterson's real life, I still don't really know what to make of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in terms of my response to the story and its narrator. This is true even though over the decades I have read the book many times. In that sense, it is a very complex work.
Either the narrator is telling the absolute truth with deadpan irony, in which case tears of sympathy are due to her from the reader in buckets. Or it's an intentional, wryly entertaining invention, in which case the tears streaming down your cheeks are likely to be those of unrestrained hilarity. Is there exaggeration? Almost certainly. Playfully, though, and handed very carefully like a delicate china ornament.
There's a lot of pain in there, too. The dramatic exaggeration may well be a coping mechanism based around distancing and denial, and if so that only serves to increase my sympathy and respect for Jeanette Winterson. Whatever she went through, it can't have been good.
I first encountered Jeanette Winterson in my first year at Oxford. Not because I was reading English, but because some of my friends were. They raved about a new(ish) woman writer who'd been right here at Somerville a decade earlier and had won the Whitbread Award For First Novel in 1985 (five years before) and then the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1987 for The Passion.
When I went to university in 1990, Sexing the Cherry had recently been published, and a friend recommended it to me. This was my introduction to Jeanette Winterson. Somerville was a women's college back then (and it would be decades longer before I became nonbinary), so recently published lesbian fiction was par for the course. Everyone seemed to have a copy.
Only later did I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I don't always take to autobiographical fiction, which means I'm not much of a fan of debut novels, where it is customary to plumb personal experience for subject matter. When I did get round to reading it, I was glad that I had, though.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit managed to combine being movingly sincere with being wryly ironic. That's a quintessentially English virtue if ever there was one. There is, of course, the hybrid possibility that Jeanette is an unreliable narrator, but the tone is one of too much sincerity, I think, for that. I suspect that this is simply one of those masterly novels that are strong enough to sustain any breadth of reader reaction without buckling under the strain.
Yet another reason to admire it.
Thank you so much for reading my review of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. I'll be back on Friday. In the meantime, the comments section is open.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Jackie Won a Pony by Judith M Berrisford here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my article about family in the horror fiction of John Wyndham (They May Not Mean To) here.