Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Aren't the Only fruit, was the latest book read by the IFN Book Club. Its main character, Jeanette, talks about her childhood growing up in a Fundamentalist Christian home, with an adoptive mother who isn't emotionally available and a father that hardly speaks. Her upbringing is marked by intense Bible readings, mixed feelings and strong self-belief.
While her mother's voice is dominant in their home, her father is practically mute. This brings up the topic of gender roles. Men are scarce in the novel, with the exception of Pastor Spratt and Jeanette's father. Furthermore, Jeanette is accused of being too male/masculine, which is put down to her wielding too much power, preaching at Church and teaching Sunday school. The mother's relationship with a French boy, Pierre, adds something to the novel’s commentary on male-female relationships. We learn that she spent the night with him and ended up going to the doctor to discover she had a stomach ulcer. That fuzzy feeling wasn’t love after all! Her unwavering decision to follow the path of the righteous was her saving grace. This is a woman determined to have her daughter follow in her footsteps, and avoid falling foul of sins of the flesh. Not like their next-door neighbours who fornicate loudly on Sundays!
In terms of the women represented in the novel, we have the women in the church, Jeanette's friend Elsie, Jeanette's girlfriends, her mother and a very brief account of her birth mother. Jeanette's relationships with Melanie, and later Katy, have the ups and downs of any teen romance but Melanie's betrayal hurts Jeanette intensely – she was able to justify her love for both Melanie and God and saw nothing wrong with loving both. Her church performs an exorcism, their form of gay conversion. Afterwards Jeanette is seduced by Miss Jewsbury, an older member of the church, which leaves her with mixed feelings once again. Meanwhile, one of Jeanette’s only friends in the novel, Elsie, provides support for her inside and outside the Church, and seems to be a genuine, loving and religious person at heart.
The religious fervour of their church, the Society of the Lost, is prevalent throughout the novel, whether it's through the members of the group singing and praying in protest, or converting more souls for Christ. Related to this theme of religious belief, is the testing of Jeanette's own during the exorcism, aiming to rid her of her ‘demons’. She experiences a vision of an orange demon that tells her to make a choice - either continue as she is or make a change. Clearly, her self-belief and faith in God give her the strength to make that decision. Unable to live at home any longer due to her mother's insistence that she’s evil, Jeanette takes a job in a funeral parlour, sells ice cream from a van and eventually moves out of town. After some time away, she returns home to visit her parents. Technology has arrived in the form of an electric organ and new radio but the religious fervour remains.
This book would be good for teens, not just as a coming out story but also as the journey of a teenager who questions the life she's living and searches for a true self. There are some parallels between this novel and the writer's own life, but as Winterson says: "Oranges is the document, both true and false, which will have to serve for my life until I went to Oxford, and after that I daresay that whatever I tell you will be another document, one that is both true and false."
I urge you to read this book. Please give it to somebody you know when you're done – sharing is caring.
Review by Emma Keenan
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